Student Debt Problems Deserve Full Discussion
By Joseph R. Marbach, Ph.D. and William J. Behre, Ph.D.
Recently, the Asbury Park Press published an article (5 NJ Colleges with the highest debt, 8/30/16) about student debt, based in large part on a study done by LendEDU, a company that brokers in student loan refinancing. LendEDU will certainly benefit from perpetuating the notion that higher education is in crisis and that students are victims of debt that, of course, needs to be refinanced. In this study, students are cast as victims who need LendEDU’s help. Indeed, the study refers to colleges as “giving” students debt. Think about that word choice.
Students take on debt based on the perceived value of the college they choose. Colleges do not “give” them debt. Take Georgian Court University as an example. As the APP article suggests, there are many lower-priced alternatives within the New Jersey state college system.
Yet many students choose to come to GCU, even if it means incurring a modestly larger debt. We believe that this is because students recognize that GCU offers them something that other schools do not. For some, it is our faculty and class size. For others, it might be location or a particular major. For transfer students, it is likely the fact that we offer some of the most generous transfer financial aid in the region. In any case, students make the choice to incur debt as they see fit.
GCU Alumni Repay Their Loans
One key measure of whether a student’s debt load is appropriate is his or her ability to pay off the loans. At GCU, our default rate is a very low 4.7 percent. The national default rate is 11.8 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
What does this mean? GCU graduates are obtaining the employment and salaries necessary to responsibly address their debt load. In 2015, Money magazine ranked GCU #25 in the “Top 50 Colleges that Add the Most Value” and Washington Monthly named us among colleges delivering the “Best Bang for the Buck,” based in part on student loan default rates, graduation rates, the percentage of students with lower incomes who qualify for federal Pell grants, and the net price to attend Georgian Court.
At GCU, things are working as they should. Students are earning degrees, securing jobs, and paying off their debt. Are there exceptions? Of course. Our goal is to keep these exceptions to a minimum. With a student loan default rate that is significantly lower than the national average, we believe we have been successful on this front.
Colleges Can Do More
First, we must do everything possible to contain costs. At GCU, we were the only New Jersey institution to hold tuition steady this year, and we continue to work with students to keep college affordable.
As colleges and universities, we can work harder to ensure that students leave with a degree. All too often they begin school, accumulate debt, and leave without graduating. They assume debt without building the accompanying earning power of a degree. If there is a true debt crisis in America, it is with this group.
How do colleges combat this problem? Start by honestly evaluating an applicant’s chances of success. While it is hard to turn down a paying student, sometimes we must. It is simply not right to accept a student who does not have a reasonable chance of success. At GCU, we have renewed our emphasis on selectivity as our average GPA for new students has risen from 3.05 in 2013 to 3.25 today. In the same time period, our average SAT score has risen by almost 50 points.
We believe that the best way to combat any perceived student loan crisis is to do everything that we can to assure students’ success during college and beyond, so that they are able to pay back any debt they choose to incur.— Dr. William J. Behre, GCU Provost
In addition, institutions should fully commit to supporting students who do enroll. Over the last two years at GCU, we have restructured advising, created a writing center, and streamlined our mathematics support in order to help assure student success. GCU developed Chart the Course, a nationally recognized program that gives free courses during winter and summer terms to certain first-year students—students who are at risk of falling behind. In the wake of these changes, our first-to-second year retention rate, a key indicator of persistence toward a degree, has risen from about 70 percent to over 80 percent.
Finally, colleges must work to make sure that students graduate in four years. One of the greatest unplanned costs of college is extended time toward graduation. At GCU, we expect that our efforts to increase retention will ultimately increase our timely graduation rates as more and more students take advantage of the support that is offered to them.
In short, we believe that the best way to combat any perceived student loan crisis is to do everything that we can to assure students’ success during college and beyond, so that they are able to pay back any debt they choose to incur.
Joseph R. Marbach, Ph.D., is president of Georgian Court University. Provost William J. Behre, Ph.D., serves as GCU’s chief academic officer.