A letter to the editor in the Arizona Daily Star on May 24 voiced what many in Arizona and elsewhere may be thinking: What is all this ruckus about student debt?
To paraphrase the letter: Be thankful you have a student loan with a college degree. You will be able to earn more and easily pay back your debt. To the writer of the letter, a student loan is a down payment on the American dream.
Unfortunately for many in Arizona, the dream fades but the debt remains.
Since the 2008 recession, Arizona has reduced support of higher education by 56 percent, while increasing tuition 88 percent. Arizona is unrivaled in the nation in the size of these cuts and tuition increases. College and university costs are becoming roadblocks for students of middle- and working-class families.
At Arizona’s three public universities, the average undergraduate debt now hovers around $23,000. For those attending the state’s private and for-profit institutions, it is much higher. Since loans generally cover only base tuition (not books, fees, room, board or other expenses), even student loans don’t cover anywhere near the current cost of college. Nationally, total student debt now hovers around $1.5 trillion, fully twice the total credit-card debt. Forty-two million Americans now owe student loans.
While the student loan crisis is gathering headlines, another devastating problem goes unnoticed: college dropouts. In Arizona, almost half the students attending private colleges and universities will be dropouts. Almost half. Most students in the state’s for-profit colleges will never graduate. These nongraduates are in a debt program, not a degree program.
The bright spots in Arizona’s graduation rate are Arizona State, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University, but probably not as bright as you think. Only 40 percent of undergraduates at the three public universities attain a four-year degree on time, and 20 percent require five or six years (termed “a reasonable time”) to get their degree. That leaves 40 percent of UA, NAU or ASU to finish when and if they can.
Reform of the student debt burden is crucial, but so is reversing the dropout statistics. Universities will need to re-examine their own culture and practices. Rather than blaming incoming students’ for their academic shortfalls, they need to proactively help students successfully navigate the curriculum.
No one has to reinvent the wheel. Georgia State University, a large urban institution with a student body that many would categorize as “at-risk,” used to lose 59 percent of an incoming class. But then the university undertook an examination of underperformance.
Any student receiving a C grade or lower in an introductory course was a likely prospect to drop out, as was a student with spotty attendance or one who registered for the wrong class.
In each case, an academic adviser immediately reaches out to offer remedies. Georgia State now averages 50,000 meetings with students annually, but the graduation rate has gone up 15 percent, a dramatic climb in the right direction for any “at-risk” student body.
There’s been a good deal of national attention paid to high school dropout rates, as well there should be, but surprisingly scant attention to the increasingly costly college dropout rate.
Not every student who attends a university should be guaranteed an on-time graduation, and not every student recruited to college belongs there. But when 40 percent or more of Arizona’s college students exit with more debt than opportunities, much more than their future is at risk. Our state and our country’s future hang in the balance as well.