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The Oregonian: Sallie Mae reveals college affordability issues that need to be solved
Author: The Oregonian Editorial Board
Posted: July 23, 2012

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

Sallie Mae's annual report on "How America Pays for College," issued last week, contains pages of dire statistics about the debt students and their families accumulate. It's a sad tale and one that must be addressed to give future generations a reasonable shot at financial stability. 

The reasons for mounting student debt are longer than a freshman research paper -- a weak economy, rising tuition costs, limited funding for grants and scholarships are three of the most prominent -- and defy quick solutions. But a chart on Page 16 of the student-loan servicer's report jumps off the page, highlighting a correctable problem. 

One-third of students shoulder sole responsibility for deciding how to pay for college, Sallie Mae's survey showed. And 79 percent of students decide entirely on their own where to go to college, a choice that can greatly influence cost. Worse yet, parental involvement did not necessarily equate to parental preparedness. Only 39 percent of families said they had a plan to pay for all years of college before the student enrolled. 

Not surprisingly, low-income students -- the ones least likely to have attractive options -- were the most likely to make decisions on their own. And because of cutbacks at high schools, fewer counselors are available to help students who do not get guidance at home. 

This knowledge gap must be closed. What good does it do to make sure students have adequate math and writing skills for college if they have no idea how to pay for school? This lack of information and options leads many students to more expensive private lenders instead of, or in addition to, government loan programs. 

Efforts to make higher education more affordable have been more talk than action in Oregon, in part because of the state's boom-to-bust tax structure. But, as the Sallie Mae survey clearly shows, students have some needs that colleges can meet at little or no cost. Specifically, colleges need to work more closely with students to help them make decisions that will limit costs -- ranging from taking the right courses to deciding how much money to borrow and how many hours to work. 

Some schools are beginning to take action. 

During the 2012 winter quarter, Portland State University launched a new program to help students plan two to three years in advance by using "very clear, prescriptive degree maps," said Jackie Balzer, PSU's vice president for enrollment and student management. The goal is to identify the fastest, most-efficient path to a degree in the student's chosen field, she said. An adviser will intervene and initiate a meeting if a student fails to complete a required class.

Balzer said the degree maps are part of a "financial literacy agenda" the university has heavily emphasized in the past year and a half. 

As part of that agenda, Portland State has expanded its outreach to potential students to include financial planning. PSU takes its paying-for-college message to high schools, community and church groups, pre-college preparation programs and other youth-oriented organizations. Once students enroll, PSU offers an online tutorial on financial literacy. Advisers are available to help students do the math on real-life problems such as, "Is it more cost effective to go to school full time and work 10 hours a week, or go to school part time and work more hours?" 

Portland State is not alone in taking steps to help students make decisions that will control college costs. Larry Large, president of the Oregon Alliance of Independent Colleges and Universities, said many of the 20 schools represented by the alliance also are providing more personal attention to help students with financial matters. 

Colleges and universities should continue and expand these programs. They also should build on existing efforts to make it easier to transfer credits from one college to another.

The long-term answers to college affordability are complex and difficult. But, as the Sallie Mae report shows, in the short term a renewed commitment to financial planning by schools and families can make the seemingly impossible a little more doable.