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V4I1: I owe, I owe, off to College I go

By: Sonny Ramaswamy, President, NWCCU

College access, affordability, and success. A topic of significant local to national conversations, with responses ranging from hand wringing to proposals for tangible actions, including free college and partial to complete loan forgiveness, along with myriad efforts on campuses to mitigate cost of education.

As I mull over the same, I am reminded of a Jeff Stahler cartoon I saw a few years ago and the song Heigh-Ho, Heigh Ho sung by the seven dwarfs in the 1937 Disney animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which in recent years has morphed into bumper sticker slogans and song, “I owe, I owe, off to work I go.” Considering the state of student loans and indebtedness in 2021, “I owe, I owe, off to College I go,” although alliterative with the song from the Disney Film, is maybe more appropriately rephrased, “I go to College, ergo I owe, I owe.”

The drumbeat of the ever-increasing student indebtedness continues. Almost 45 million Americans currently owe over $1.71 trillion in student loans, a seven-fold increase since 2003 and exceeding credit card debt, auto loans, and home equity loans.

Over 65 percent of the class of 2019 graduated with an average debt of over $39,000. Additionally, more first-generation college students take out more loans than continuing-generation grads; close to 30 percent of student borrowers eventually default on their loans.

In addition to the high, direct cost of attending college, i.e., tuition and fees, the indirect, non-tuition costs are significant, the latter constituting almost half of the total cost of postsecondary education. State and institutional financial aid programs focus mostly on tuition, so students must cover costs for fees, childcare, healthcare, food, housing, transportation, and books, which can add up to thousands of dollars in additional, unforeseen costs. These indirect costs create financial hardship and contribute to poverty, nutritional insecurity, poor physical and mental health outcomes, and homelessness, and could potentially prevent students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds and underserved communities, of achieving their educational aspirations. These indirect costs are a significant contributor to students dropping out.

With the burgeoning student loan crisis and the escalating cost of education, public and political skepticism, and the unrelenting SARS-CoV2 pandemic and concomitant economic crisis, higher education as a public good is a hard sell. Students graduating later and then struggling to find jobs that pay well or are in line with their educational credentials and expectations, which disproportionately affect students from underserved and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, are additional threats to higher education.

College education, however, continues to be worth the investment. Indeed, college graduates earn more than twice as do high school graduates, have greater career, social, and economic mobility, and realize a better quality of life. A recent report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce provides compelling data and rationale for higher education as a path forward to deal with the extant economic, social, and racial injustices: 57 percent of the top 60 percent of the population have a postsecondary degree; only 24 percent of Native American, Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian adults, 21 percent of Latinx, and 31 percent of African Americans have a postsecondary degree, compared with 46 percent of whites. With similar higher education attainment rates across racial and ethnic groups, the report suggests that the economy would generate an additional over $300 billion in annual tax revenue and add almost $550 billion to the nation’s annual Gross Domestic Product. Aside from the measurable economic impacts, the collateral benefits of higher education include, for example, greater civic engagement, lower expenditures on public assistance programs, lower criminal justice expenditures, and better health outcomes. The potential positive outcomes resulting from higher education are exquisitely captured in the German word, bildung: the complete moral, emotional, intellectual, and civic transformation of the individual through education.

The various proposals for free college and loan forgiveness noted earlier are of course caught up in the intense partisan divide and may or may not come to fruition any time soon – the adage, don’t hold your breath, is apropos. However, academic institutions can and are undertaking actions at the local level to mitigate costs of higher education. Addressing the escalating student loan crisis will require a multipronged approach that addresses both direct and indirect costs of postsecondary education. Where institutions likely will have the most significant impacts in addressing college access and affordability is to focus on student success and closing equity gaps, ensuring all students complete their aspirational educational goals in the shortest amount of time possible, with the least cost. This will require reimagining, reengineering, and reinvigorating student educational experiences by a laser focus on student success and closing equity gaps, combined with the development and application of effective, formative educational approaches that contribute to tangible improvements in student performance and graduation rates, to mitigate costs and concerns expressed by the public, funders, parents, and students themselves.

Much has been written about or institutions have developed and deployed strategies and tactics to promote student success, close equity gaps, mitigate costs, and improve affordability. Through application of its Standards for Accreditation and Eligibility Requirements, NWCCU promotes student success and closing equity gaps at its member institutions with a focus on core competencies, i.e., a combination of technical, cognitive skills, along with the non-cognitive, essential skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, teamwork, and other such skills. The high impact strategies being promoted include use of disaggregated data-informed predictive analytics and other digital tools to enhance community and group interactions that ensure student learning outcomes by focusing on the fundamentals, including personalized education and services, intensive mentoring, intrusive advising and academic coaching, and experiential learning opportunities. In addition, successful institutions also offer students help with financial aid and just-in-time grants, promote social networks, ensure food security, and provide housing, child- and health-care support, and mental health counseling. Institutions with demonstrable success, including several NWCCU members, have accommodated new educational models, such as shorter time to degree, alternative credentialing, micro- and stacked-credentialing, badges, competency-based education, certificate programs, and other such strategies. With the recent experiences gained from offering remote learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the possibility of using a combination of on-campus, online, blended, hybrid, and technology-supported education and learning models to create anytime, anywhere learning offered in an “open-campus” environment present tantalizing possibilities to reduce costs and enhance retention and completion rates.

The NWCCU family of institutions and others across the United States have developed myriad innovations to reduce the overall cost of education. Our efforts at the Commission include, with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through their Intermediaries for Scale and Postsecondary Data Partnership, reimagined, proactive, vigorous, tailored, and targeted educational programming to support student success and close equity gaps. To this end, we have hired Jordan Kamai to coordinate NWCCU’s educational efforts.

The opportunity afforded by the COVID-19 pandemic to innovate higher education would be a terrible thing to waste. It’ll take an all-hands-on-deck approach and the commitment and involvement of all concerned – students, faculty, staff, administrators, parents, alumni, legislators, regulators, and accreditors – to ensure that indebtedness as an impediment because of attending college is a thing of the past.

As stated eloquently by the author, Arundhati Roy: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”


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