Eleazar Wawa: Policymakers and Educators Must Act Deftly and Intentionally When Expanding College Access
by Eleazar Wawa, age 18
Graduating college is a significant milestone in life. In most cases it marks the end of an age; scholastic education is over and a professional career begins. While many students find it exciting to be on the cusp of “adulthood,” a good portion are burdened by debt. And now, after graduation, they also face the stress that comes with debt.
As an incoming college student, I worry about money. I am concerned that education costs will limit my college choices. I also fear I will need to commit time to earning money during school. This could hinder my academic performance.
I don’t want to be caught in the same financial trap that catches many young people these days. A column by Dave Zweifel in The Capital Times tells the story of recent University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, Jacob Hollnagel.
In a letter to Senator Tammy Baldwin, Hollnagel, who graduated with $33,000 in student debt said, "I've thought about moving back home with my parents and working in my hometown, but that would mean foregoing a career in my field. Buying a car, getting married, buying a house, and many other fundamental economic activities are either out of reach or significantly less attractive with my debt."
In summer 2013, President Obama signed a bill that will redesign
student financial aid in the United States. The law concerns Stafford loans, student loans offered to undergraduate or graduate students enrolled in accredited American colleges.
Between 2006 and 2013, subsidized loans for undergraduate students had a fixed interest rate of 3.4 percent. On July 1, 2013, those interest rates were scheduled to double. To avoid this contingency, Congressional Democrats and Republicans worked together over several weeks to figure out a solution.
In late July, by a vote of 392 to 31, Congress passed the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act. Under this new plan, different interest rates for both subsidized and unsubsidized loans were established for undergraduate, graduate and parental loans. All federal student loans now have an interest rate cap. The intent is to protect the buyer by limiting how high interest rates can go.
For the current academic year (2013-14) interest rates start at 3.9 percent for undergraduates, but can reset as high as 8.25 percent. For graduate students the rate is 5.4 percent with a 9.5 percent cap. Rates for parent PLUS loans start at 6.4 percent and the cap is 10.5 percent.
Although the increases in these rates might make borrowers uneasy, policymakers say that the new plan will not impede the contracts of previously purchased loans. And even though the rates will most likely vary with market conditions, supporters say the Bipartisan Act will save borrowers an average of $1,500 per loan.
On paper, the new student loan plan seems reasonable. But skeptics say rate caps are still very high, even for undergraduate loans. What if both the interest rate and the school’s tuition increase? And suppose that the interest rate of a loan exceeds what a student is capable of paying? Most students live on a fixed budget that can’t accommodate significant increases in expenses.
These factors lead me to wonder. As I research these issues I tend to agree with the skeptics. How can policymakers be so irresponsible about student loans? Don’t they know that a large portion of the American population depends on the student loan system? Is there a reason to be satisfied with the bill if the rate Congress was trying so desperately to avoid is exceeded by the rate caps? These are all valid questions.
Despite the fact that Congress came together to find a solution to the problem, they have only managed to put a Band-Aid on it. They tried to make student borrowing more efficient. Instead, political the endless process of negotiations and compromise diluted the impact of this legislation.
On the bright side, the executive branch seems to be making college access a priority. President Obama held an education summit at the White House in January. He invited over 100 college and university presidents and the leaders of more than 40 non-profit and other education groups.
President Obama stated: “More than ever, a college degree is the surest path to a stable middle-class life.”
The President urged schools to reach out to those who are not financially prepared. In response, UW-Madison has initiated their own efforts to aid low-income and minority students. Chancellor Rebecca Blank, who attended the president’s summit, promised to expand existing programs.
Chancellor Blank also plans to increase funding for need-based financial aid from 20 to 30 percent. These short-term initiatives will probably begin this year. Long-term initiatives include a plan to add $10 to $20 million in financial aid.
UW-Madison Provost Paul DeLuca explained that UW-Madison intends to add staff in enrollment management who will focus on helping guide low-income families through the financial aid process. DeLuca also said that the university wishes to start a program called the Institute for Science Education, aimed at spurring low-income students towards the sciences.
Expansion of existing UW programs involves the Pre-College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence, or PEOPLE. The PEOPLE Program’s mission is to promote college-readiness. Through the program, low-income and minority students receive financial aid if they are admitted to UW-Madison. The PEOPLE program currently involves over 900 pre-college students and 350 students within the UW system. An expansion would extend its scope of involvement to low-income students in to other parts of Wisconsin. DeLuca stated that “judicious budgeting” will fund this initiative.
According to the PEOPLE Program, 71% of their students have been able to graduate college within six years. This expansion is a dedicated response to President Obama’s call for action, but at the same time may be a hasty one.
In an email to Rebecca Blank, Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab said, “The PEOPLE program has not been rigorously evaluated for effectiveness.”
Successfully working towards college access involves both commitment and careful planning. Before expanding an already present program, educators should carefully analyze its efficacy.
Educators should be careful when introducing new initiatives. As a college student, I want to see changes that don’t just look good on paper, but visibly impact my community. We saw in Congress how endless deliberation and compromises can lessen the impact of otherwise well-intended policies. I’ve already seen so much wasted potential. I hope this time educators act to bring about intentional change.
[Sources: The New York Times; The Capital Times; NBC News; www.polymic.com; www.bankrate.com; www.riskencyclopedia.com; Wisconsin State Journal]