Heading off a national disaster

Rosa is a senior at George Washington University (where Steve teaches). Her father, a dockworker who speaks little English, lost his job last fall. The family’s meager savings are gone, and she might have to leave school next month. “We’re broke,” she says.

This is a tragedy. Rosa is exactly the sort of student America needs: a smart, motivated Latina whose family immigrated to New Jersey from South America 20 years ago. She’s the first in her family to attend college and the first to vote. She even went home last fall to cast her ballot in person, and set a good example for her younger brothers.

Rosa is hardly alone. The economic downturn is crushing college students across the country. Even parents who still have jobs are watching their homes and investments plunge in value – exactly the assets they planned on tapping to pay tuition.

“All of our anxiety is around our students, and their financial ability to attend,” Robert A. Brown, the president of Boston University, told the Boston Globe. “That’s an absolutely fundamental shift from the past few years.”

As student needs are skyrocketing, aid money is dwindling. Thirty-one states are facing budget shortfalls, and higher education is on the chopping block. One example: The California State University system will cut enrollment by 10,000 students.



Many endowments have lost a quarter of their value – or more. Harvard saw $8 billion evaporate in four months. The Kansas University Endowment Association will slash its distribution by 10 percent next year, jeopardizing freshmen scholarships. Tufts might have to amend its policy of admitting students regardless of their ability to pay.

This all presents many students with hard choices. Some, like Rosa, might have to drop out and go to work. Many who stay in school will have to take out larger loans, take in more roommates, work longer hours (when they can find jobs), and stretch their food dollars.

There’s no shame in waiting tables or living on mac and cheese, but stacking up heavier loan burdens takes an enormous toll. In 2007, two of three students owed money when they graduated, and their average debt topped $22,000. With the unemployment rate expected to rise next year, new grads will face higher loan payments and lower job prospects at the same time.

When Congress crafts an economic-stimulus program next year, higher education should be a top priority, and there is no shortage of ideas. A group of prestigious public universities took out newspaper ads this week to propose that 5 percent of any stimulus package, about $40 billion to $45 billion, should go to “shovel ready” campus-based projects, like new dorms or power plants.

During the campaign, Barack Obama proposed a $4,000 annual tax credit to subsidize tuition payments, and in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a coalition of education associations made additional suggestions: increase federal grants, aimed at the neediest students, from a maximum of $4,731 to $7,000 a year; boost work-study money by 25 percent; and create an “emergency access” pool of additional loan funds for the next two years.

Colleges and universities are not just asking for federal help, many are taking steps on their own. Syracuse has mounted an emergency fundraising campaign, asking alumni to contribute $2 million to keep 400 students in school. Michigan State has put $500,000 into an “Adverse Economic Circumstances Fund.”

At George Washington, senior vice president Robert A. Chernak says he’s “squirreled away” money to help students like Rosa stay on campus. Undergrads whose parents have lost income are encouraged to recalibrate their financial profiles and qualify for additional aid. The university is also bending rules that require students to pay a semester’s tuition up front. Chernak recently let a needy student cancel a rooming contract to move in with his sister and save $5,000.

In the current climate, he says, such gestures are not only good-hearted but “good business.” Students who stay pay something; students who drop out pay nothing. Chernak figures that retaining about 300 students is the break-even point where the increased aid pays for itself. And parents of prospective students notice when a school is generous and flexible: “Recruiting next year’s class is based on how you treat your current students.”

Meeting this crisis will take a private/public partnership. Students like Rosa should not be forced to leave school. “If that happens on any kind of a scale,” Molly Corbett Broad of the American Council on Education told the Globe, “it could be a national disaster.”

Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2008, Steven and Cokie Roberts.

Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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