TO: The Trinity Community
As Congress takes another look at federal student loans and discusses ways to restructure student financial aid, President Pat McGuire was invited to write an opinion piece for the National Journal online. From the very first line of her guest blog below, you can see that she continues to advocate passionately for students for whom federal financial aid is an essential element of their ability to access higher education. In the media, on Capitol Hill, in major speeches to the business community and higher education conferences, President McGuire is always a tireless and passionate advocate for students and for expanding access to higher education.
The full text of her guest blog is below; you can also read it online at the National Journal.
For those who are particularly interested in student financial aid, be sure to read the guest blog that follows President McGuire’s, written by Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO, Lumina Foundation for Education, another major leader in improving access to higher education..
~ Ann Pauley, VP for Advancement, Media Relations
Stop Using Collegiate Stereotypes
President Patricia McGuire
Guest Blog, National Journal, March 18, 2013
How many of the policymakers debating changes to the student financial aid system ever had to choose between buying baby formula or that Calculus workbook? Did any of them ever spend months of their college years “couch surfing” because they were homeless? Have any of the lawmakers threatening to tie student loans to traditional ideas about college completion timetables ever talked to a woman who stopped out of college in her junior year to support her husband’s career, returning decades later (often after a divorce) to complete that degree?
Amid the noisy debate over student financial aid reform, there’s a large zone of silence: the voices of the very students whose life experiences may well be quite different from those of the people writing the rules are absent from the discussion. These are students who manifest numerous “non-traditional” characteristics, and according to U.S. Department of Education data, they may be more than 70% of all college students today. They may be sophomores with children of their own, freshmen with full-time jobs, juniors who switch back and forth from full-time to part-time status, seniors who stopped out to care for sick parents, young adults who have no parents to pay the bills, older adults who returned to college after taking time off for family and work responsibilities. Chances are they have “swirled” through several colleges; more than 50% of all college students today attend at least two institutions during their academic careers.
Yet, policymakers and their advisors continue to make policy choices based on the most traditional of collegiate stereotypes, the idea that a student is 18-22, supported by two parents, living on campus and finishing in a straight line at the same college over four years. Fewer than 25% of today’s college students fit that outmoded stereotype, but members of Congress seem to think that this one size can fit all. It doesn’t fit, and it’s a real straightjacket for too many of today’s college students, especially low income students whose lives are extremely stressed and complicated.
If Congress is really serious about achieving national goals to promote higher rates of degree attainment, particularly among historically marginalized populations of African American and Hispanic students who are fast becoming the majority in many universities, lawmakers must take the time to learn more about these students and what it really takes to ensure their success.
Low income students already have a hard enough time staying in school. At Trinity in Washington, where I am president, the median family income of our freshmen this year is just about $30,000. Even though we keep tuition as low as possible, and provide significant institutional grants along with all other forms of aid, too many students have to switch to part-time status or stop out for a semester or two in order to work more hours to make ends meet. Going part-time or stopping out several times means that students may take 8-10 years or more to complete degrees, and hence, they are treated as “drop-outs” in the federal data system even if they manage to complete their degrees on the longer timetable.
Jacking up the interest rates on student loans by a few more points, even for the loans that are not due until after graduation, can be the final straw for students already living on the margins. A few hundred dollars a year makes all the difference between just getting by and personal catastrophe for many of my students. Rather than helping completion rates, increasing the interest rates on student loans will undermine efforts to promote greater degree attainment, and, by the way, such a move will likely exacerbate default rates.
Keeping the cost of federal loans as low as possible is an important starting point, but not the only consideration. Reducing the sheer complexity of the federal aid system, with its arcane acronyms and complicated forms and demands for parental tax information for students who often have no functional adults in their lives is critically important. Proposals to tie interest rates to the market rate have appeal when the market rate is low, but when the bubble bursts, students will pay dearly for that gamble.
Most important, before making any changes in student loans or the federal financial aid system generally, policymakers should spend a lot more time learning about and listening to the new populations of students who are rapidly reshaping higher education in this country. Changes to the federal loan system should help low income students by keeping rates low, as they were historically, and recognizing the myriad “non-traditional” ways these students attend college on their way to the ultimate goal of degree completion.