“I’d love to go back to school and finish the degree if possible,” a former student told me on LinkedIn. I had been on maternity leave, so I hadn’t heard this student had left school. I thought he had successfully switched majors.
I remembered him saying how important it was to him to finish after investing three years into his degree. Instead, he’d joined a coding boot camp that cost much less than university tuition. I wondered then if he became another of the many who got the student loan debt but not the degree.
President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness applications recently opened, allowing up to $10,000 of federally held loans to be forgiven per borrower (or $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients). This is expected to affect up to 43 million people.
This is good news. But all the attention on student loan debt only serves to highlight that the majority of students are expected to graduate owing a substantial amount of money.
Since the 1937 Student Personnel Point of View asserted that university employees serve the “whole student,” higher education staff have entered the profession with hopes of bettering the lives of students. Despite the low pay and sometimes long hours, higher education staff are continually encouraged to persist “for the students.”
I trained for this profession in graduate school, knowing the pay was low but wanting to make a difference. My hope was that I would be able to help students navigate the university, just as higher education staff had helped me when I was in undergrad.
At first, the gratification of helping students was the only motivator I needed, but during the pandemic I started to hear from more and more students who were struggling to graduate because of academic and financial difficulties. This is when I began to question how much help I was really giving.
In my role as a career counselor, I helped students process their decisions about choosing a major and career. I worked at a university with a high population of first-generation, low-income students, and I found a huge amount of satisfaction in helping these students achieve economic mobility.
I spoke with some students who, though they were the first in their families to go to college, could expect to graduate with qualifications to be an engineer, where the starting salary is close to $70,000.
However, I also met with students facing a crossroads, like the students who needed to change majors years into their undergraduate experience ― and address the accompanying debt. Like the student on LinkedIn, they expressed anxiety over lengthening their time to graduation while accumulating more student loans, and dread over the prospect of not getting a degree at all.
While some managed to move to a more fitting major, others realized that switching was not a feasible option. Thus, instead of graduating with a degree to help them increase their qualifications for a career, they left the university prematurely and saddled with debt.
Some students take leaves of absence from school for medical or family emergencies, and are not able to return. For those who do persist to graduation, many can still expect to have some amount of debt. A degree does not guarantee economic mobility in the way my students once believed.
Seeing students leave with neither degree nor ability to pay back their loans unsettled me. As someone whose job was funded by student fees, I felt the weight of my paycheck on the backs of these departing students, and I began to question why I was doing this work at all.
While in my role, I had the privilege of helping students find jobs post-graduation, but I felt at a loss to help those I met with who ultimately decided to leave the university. I found myself wishing I had a path forward for them that did not mean lengthening time to graduation or putting them in a position where leaving school felt like their only option.
So when I found myself weighing the cost of day care for my newborn and the benefit of returning to the work I’d loved, the scales tipped in a way I did not expect. I gave my notice, and I am not sure if I will return.
We must confront the reality that a student’s return on investment is not what it once was. The gratification of helping students is what motivated me, more than the paycheck or benefits. But there are limits to my ability to help in a system that makes substantial debt an inevitable part of affording college for the majority of students.
With the recent news attention to the student loan crisis, I realize that we can no longer unambiguously claim to be serving the “whole student” when we know our students accumulate tens of thousands of dollars of debt, with up to 40% of students having no degree to show for it.
Even with the possibility of student loan forgiveness for those who will not be excluded, the systemic problem persists: The cost of higher education is rising between 3% and 7% a year, and without sufficient pressure to keep those costs low, any blanket loan forgiveness policies will become less and less effective. Higher education costs have been passed on to students as state and local funding for higher education has waxed and waned.
Our students need help. We say we want students to achieve economic mobility, and yet we start many of them off in their careers, degree or no degree, with a net negative wealth.
While student loan forgiveness and income-based repayment plans are a step in the right direction, students are graduating with an average $28,950 in loans, a number that increases yearly by 1.961%. Instead of increasing the amount of loans a student receives in their financial aid package, Dartmouth replaced loans with alternate funds: scholarship and grant money funded by an $80 million endowment. Endowments that focus on lowering the out-of-pocket cost for students, and significantly limiting the offering of loans, would be another path toward improving the system and allowing us to live up to our charges as Student Personnel.
While we are given the responsibility of guiding students through their own financial journeys, many of us struggle financially ourselves, sometimes to pay back our own student loans for the graduate degrees required to work in many of our roles. Meanwhile, we’re told to “measure our time in students’ lives, not hours,” as a professor in my masters program once told me.
I knew compensation and flexibility were lacking when I chose this profession “for the students,” but what I didn’t know is that the system itself is not for them. It forces them into debt, sees an average of just 60% graduate, and pushes increasing costs on to them such that the year-to-year cost of a degree is challenging to anticipate.
To continue in the profession, I need to have hope that the system will allow students the chance to succeed ― financially and otherwise.
The recent loan forgiveness policy is giving us some hope, but more drastic measures to reduce the out-of-pocket cost to students would have an even greater impact. Only then can we begin to believe that our work is “for the students” again. And perhaps both my former student and I can find ourselves on campus again, too.