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Paying for College: Idealistic Alternatives

April 26, 2012

Total student loan in the United States has topped one trillion dollars recently, leading to a spate of news stories about debt, tuition inflation, and a proposed bill to cap loan repayments. This last seems pretty reasonable; basically, if you've paid 10% of your income for ten years and you're still not out of the hole, the government will forgive your debt, up to $45,000 or so. This requires budgeting and working hard to pay the loan back, and it encourages responsible borrowing in the first place--not like somebody I read about a while ago, who used student loans to buy a sports car (seriously). Granted, I haven't looked into this too deeply, but it seems like a good idea.

But how else can you work this out? One obvious solution, it seems to me, is to reduce the price of college, which reduces debt in the first place and makes it a more viable option to more people. If more people can pay for college, not only will more people go, but colleges won't feel pressured financially to base admissions decisions on financial aid. (Many colleges have need-blind admissions, but not all; Oberlin is "need-sensitive," but not need-blind.) So how do you do that?

Option one: cut the frills. Oberlin is probably fairly restrained in this respect, but other places aren't: other places aren't. A lot of schools today, Oberlin included, have really nice facilities. A lot of these are beneficial. Oberlin has some unusual amenities that are probably a good idea for students' mental and physical health: an open craft room (with looms--Emma wove a few scarves in there); the Multicultural Resource Center; the Sexual Information Center; the Student Health Center and its free cold care kits; a good counseling center; useful things like that. But we have some fluff, too. Therapy dogs on Wilder Bowl during finals and midterms: wonderful, but probably not essential, especially considering the proximity of the Ginko Gallery kittens. Similarly, I like the pool, and swimming is excellent for exercise and stress relief. Is the dry sauna equally important? Probably not (although since it exists already, I wouldn't say we should get rid of it). Do we need so many different lines in the dining hall? Again, probably not; a vegetarian/vegan line, a meat line, and a selection of sandwich materials would probably suffice. My parents were impressed at the quality of the rooms here; apparently, carpeting in a dorm room wasn't a thing a generation ago. Would it save money if rooms weren't carpeted? Probably, at least as an initial outlay when dorms are being built. But since that isn't happening right now, it's not terribly useful as a reduction measure.

So the cutting-frills option is fairly superficial and a bit of a bust, at Oberlin, anyway. Perhaps straight-up cost-cutting isn't the way to go, or at least not on its own. Maybe making it easier for people to pay would be better. Can I think of anything that might cut to the heart of access, debt, and admissions?

Absolutely: make them more intimately connected.

I was discussing a theory of mine a while ago that students should take out loans for the entire cost of their education directly from the college they attend. Such a program would be very difficult to get off the ground unless the school had a very large endowment to begin with, but, once in place, it would become self-sustaining: the alumni pay for their education, with interest, and that money goes back to finance the educations of the new crop of students. Advantages: encourages acceptance based on demonstrated responsibility, not financial status; removes any kind of financial edge or disability that students of different backgrounds might have; places entire responsibility for funding education on the student, not the student's parents; college has an incentive to keep costs low. Disadvantages: might bias the college into accepting only those interested in highly profitable fields; students with a few irresponsible moments in high school might get passed over; and, as I said, virtually impossible to start.

My friend, in exchange, proposed a tithing system: alumni pay the college a set percentage of their income for a set number of years. This could be the rest of their lives, or until they retire, or until they hit a certain amount--whatever the college in question decides. This could function, as my theory did, in exchange for a full ride, or it could replace financial aid and/or traditional loans. Advantages: need is not an issue; there is no pressure to pay back a certain amount by a certain date; colleges profit quite a lot in the long run, possibly lowering costs for later generations of students. Disadvantages: again, not practical to get started.

Neither of these would ever actually work, and I recognize that. Still, I think some of the ideas behind them are worth consideration. I think that parents should play a smaller role in paying for their children's education. I deeply appreciate my parents' help with my own college bills (read: paying most of the cost), and I know they're more than willing to do it, but I wish it wasn't necessary. They were able to pay for college with very little help from their parents and not much debt; why can't I? The answer, of course, is that the cost of college has gone up so dramatically and at so many times the rate of regular inflation that it's virtually impossible to do so. To get a job that will pay for a college education, you almost have to already have a college education. Something somewhere has to change. I say the change should be twofold: reducing the cost of college as much as possible without harming the quality of education, and changing the way it's paid for.

For financial aid offices, it's pretty much a given that parents will bear the brunt of the cost, and I don't think that's fair. It's not their college experience--why should they get stuck with the tab? They have other things to pay for: houses, retirement, other children, aging parents, perhaps even their own school debts. For the most part, we college students have no responsibilities other than to take care of ourselves. Let us do that. Trust us with that. Don't force us to impose on people, no matter how willing they are to be imposed on. Furthermore, if schools looked at students strictly on their own merit, and not on the merit of their parents' incomes, all admissions would be, by necessity, need-blind. I think this fact alone makes my proposals slightly less ridiculous.

Returning to idealistic dreamland for a moment, I'd like to point out Oberlin's motto: Learning and Labor. I'm taking the Oberlin History class; I know about this stuff. When the college was founded in the 1830s, the plan was to have students, male and female, study for four hours a day and spend another four hours in some kind of manual labor (clearing land, cleaning rooms, making clothes, raising crops). This was in keeping with Oberlin's philosophy of producing wholesome, self-sufficient graduates who would go out into the world to spread a particular kind of Christian perfectionist (idea that people can make themselves perfect) doctrine by personal example. Physical work was supposed to join with mental work in keeping people humble, productive, and practical: you raised the food you ate or cleared land for academic buildings. Not only did it help defray educational costs, it was a built-in community service requirement. The book we were reading never said so explicitly, but I think part of the impetus behind this was to get students in the habit of taking care of themselves--and of others, when possible.

That's the theory, and it's a pretty good theory, in my opinion. It didn't work out so well in practice; the students simply weren't as efficient or as effective at doing the work as full-time workers would be, and the plan was eventually scrapped. It lives on in a modified form in the Bonner Scholarships, in which students commit to some set number of hours of community service in exchange for financial aid. That's usually work in the community, though, not work for the college, so it doesn't bind "learning and labor" or college and student as tightly as it might. RAs get free housing, I believe, which is a similar philosophy (you work for the college, the college gives you a break). I think it's possible, when signing up for student jobs on campus, to have the money go directly to your student loan, so you can repay as you go--but, again, that's not directly paying the college. If there were a way to get your paycheck to be deducted from your term bill, perhaps . . . .

The point of all this idealistic, semi-ideological rambling is to say that there's something a little bit broken about the way that paying for college works right now. I don't know how we should fix it; I'm sure there are other people who've spent a lot more time researching it than I have, and they don't seem to be coming up with anything either. But I think it's something that should be discussed and not simply accepted.

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Responses to this Entry

Tess, thanks for addressing a really important question. I was just recently thinking about Oberlin's slogan "learning and labor," and how labor has become a less important part of our mission. It's interesting to look at other colleges that have made work a more integral part of the student experience (like Warren Wilson or Berea). I see physical work as a valuable way to learn, and I want to think of how it might become more central to what Oberlin does again.

Posted by: Nora on April 26, 2012 4:57 PM

FYI: RAs don't get free housing at Oberlin, although they do at many other colleges. RAs are paid a salary for their work. My understanding (former RA) is that if RAs got free housing their financial aid would just go down because their term bill costs would be decreased so students on financial aid wouldn't really get paid from the job. But as you tentatively implied, you can get a percentage or a dollar amount of your salary from an RA job or any other campus job put directly toward your tuition bill. I'm sure you could put money toward your loans but there's no reason to because with the subsidized loans you may as well wait since you don't pay any interest while you're in school and even if they are unsubsidized, if you're getting loans you probably have a portion of the tuition to contribute, too, so that would be the priority.

Posted by: Sara on April 26, 2012 7:15 PM

Thank you both for your comments!

@Nora: I think Oberlin has some success in linking "learning and labor," but the success is patchy and concentrated in certain areas. There's the Bonner Center, and some classes that have community service components, and that one rhetoric class where working in the Writing Center is a requirement--these are good ideas, but they don't reach the entire student body, and, as you pointed out, they don't tend to be physical labor.

@Sara: I didn't know Oberlin would put your salary directly toward your bill (I knew my loan provider would do that, but not the school itself, and there didn't seem any reason to do that for the reasons your stated). Maybe things are a bit better connected than I thought.

Posted by: Tess on April 27, 2012 9:21 AM

What about public funding? Just reduce the cost of education, or make it free, like it is in many places in Europe! Why should young people be the ones to take on debt, when they are the future of the country?

Posted by: Ruby Turok-Squire '16 on April 28, 2012 8:29 PM

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