A Tale of Two Stories
The following appeared as an op-ed in yesterday's Harrisburg Patriot News/PennLive.
Last week, there were two big higher-education stories. You likely missed the bigger one. The one about 50 greedy people and $25 million eclipsed the one about millions of students and $7.1 billion, including the proposed elimination of federally subsidized college loans for low-income students.
While the admissions scandal story cast a spotlight on a few dozen malefactors of privilege, the public’s attention was misdirected from the millions of deserving young people for whom higher education is a gateway to the American Dream. Federal financial aid programs are one of the best investments in the nation’s economic future, and they remain the greatest hope for advancement of the children of our most financially challenged families.
In addition to the proposed multi-billion-dollar cuts to the U.S. Department of Education, the White House budget document also called for increased institutional accountability. This comes on the heels of significant efforts by the current administration to deregulate for-profit colleges.
The admissions scandal skewed the perception of private higher education the most, which is tragic because, as a group, these institutions have the best track record of successfully moving students from poverty to the middle class along with the lowest default rates on student loans. Of the three groups, the overall outcomes of private institutions outperform public and for-profit institutions.
In fiscal year 2015, 6.6% of private-college students defaulted on student loans. That same year 7.1% of public-college students defaulted, and 14.3% of for-profit students defaulted.
Our best higher-education institutions are committed to access for students across the economic spectrum, and we strive to minimize our graduates’ debt. The average loan debt of graduates of all four-year colleges who took out student loans is $28,650. The average debt level of bachelor’s degree recipients specifically at private colleges and universities is 30 percent lower at $20,000.
Many of our students could not attend college without federal aid; institutional aid represents an even larger portion of their scholarship support. At Susquehanna University, for example, 31% of the students in our first-year class receive Federal Pell Grants, and 41% of our students are first-generation college students. The largest budget at my institution, and most others like it, is institutional financial aid: more than salaries, more than benefits, more than facilities, and more than federal aid. That is why the average out-of-pocket cost to attend Susquehanna after all assistance is accounted for is approximately $3,500 less than the public flagship in our state.
The four-year graduation rates from private four-year institutions is 53% compared to 35% for four-year public institutions and 14% for for-profit institutions. Six-year graduation rates narrow the lead with private institutions at 66%, publics at 59%, and for-profits at 23%, but for the nation’s most economically challenged students the need to complete in four years is significant, and the greater likelihood of completing on-time is a clear advantage of private institutions.
According to the White House Scorecard, Susquehanna’s four-year graduation rate is nearly twice the average for four-year institutions, and 10 years after enrolling, our graduates are earning 53% more than the median for four-year college graduates nationwide. In 2016, we were ranked first in the Commonwealth for the employment rate of our alumni. These are outcomes well worth the public’s and the university’s investments.
I hope that public attention will soon turn away from salacious accounts of greed and corruption from a privileged few and turn to the story that matters, investing in the future by remaining committed to national higher-education funding.