The VPM Blog

Op Ed: Universities Should Be Transparent About Student Debt

Posted by Melissa Cook on Oct 2, 2018 11:30:00 AM

If you’re a recent university graduate like myself, you hear the words “student loans” and feel your blood pressure rise. Or, maybe you’ve been out of school for over a decade and look at your student loans as just another monthly payment like a mortgage, wondering to yourself if the debt will ever go away. We all have it and we all have more of it. Statistics show that the average graduate owed $39,400 in 2017, a 6% rise from 2016. But why? That’s another topic altogether. Today, I want to focus on the university side of this debt crisis, what they are doing, what they can do better, and why it matters. Let’s dive in. 

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For this, I’m going to talk about my personal experience. Not all university experiences are the same, but from talking to other students, they are similar, which means we need change across the country, not just here in Auburn. I want to preface with this: Yes, I should have taken it upon myself as a student to do more research on my own; yes, I should have asked more questions, and no, I don’t want this piece to feed the “participation trophy/hand-holding millennial whining” stereotype, but universities need to be more transparent about what they are offering and how it will affect you in the future.

Picture this: you’re a freshman in college, you or a parent just filled out FAFSA for the first time and you log in to see what you’ve been offered. You see three columns: scholarships, subsidized, and unsubsidized, all with different dollar amounts associated to them. Next to each, is an accept button. No explanation on what each is, nothing telling you that subsidized and unsubsidized are loan types (much less what the difference between the two is) and no other helpful information. Just a simple column, seemingly “free” money for school, and an accept button. That’s what I saw, and because I didn’t know any better, hit accept for all three, hit submit, and went about my day.

Now this happens every semester. So, if you don’t talk to your parents, are afraid to ask a friend or advisor, or don’t understand how loans work, you are signing yourself up to be thousands of dollars in debt by simply clicking “accept” on a seemingly innocent form. In my case, I talked to my parents about it. They explained what it all meant and worked with me to help keep the debt at a manageable amount. But I never really dove in and researched how it all worked until after graduation, when that first bill hit and it broke down how much I have to pay a year, how much interest has accrued, and how long they estimate I’ll be paying it off. That’s when it became a reality for me, that’s when I understood.

via GIPHY

Now, I’m not advocating that universities don’t make it easy, they should. Students need the money and need to be able to access it in a simple way. What I am advocating for is transparency and education. Every semester, I had to take a plagiarism test before starting classes (though this was mostly for students enrolled in writing courses), to make sure I understood what it was and what the consequences were. Why not adopt a similar model for loans? When the students access their financial aid page, have them take a quick 10 minute quiz on student debt, covering the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized, how interest accrues, where the money is coming from, how long it takes to pay off, how much debt the average student at that university will have at graduation, etc., to teach the students and to be transparent about their costs. Their financial futures are at stake and if making them pass a quiz to access a page can help them better understand their financial futures and take responsibility of it, then why not?

Don’t feel like taking the time to create a quiz? Update that webpage to include that information. You have to accept the terms and conditions for everything else in life, so why not for signing yourself up for debt? It can be as simple as a timed pop-up with information on what they are accepting before they select their loan options. With this, they may not read it, and just scroll and hit accept, but that’s on them at that point.

Before you come for me with the age-old argument of “it’s not the teacher’s job to teach them, it’s the parents’,” consider the students without families supporting them, financially or any other way. Or maybe consider the fact that when our parents graduated from universities, the average cost of attending a 4 year university was less than $10,000. That’s less than a semester of out-of-state tuition in 2018, so maybe they didn’t need loans or haven’t taken the cost of college into consideration since they aren’t paying for it. 

If those arguments don’t work for you, consider this: these students are the future. Sure, maybe the parents should have taken the time to teach them, maybe they should have thought to look it up and research it (but I consider myself to be a fairly critical person and I didn’t even feel the need to look), but why would your reaction to this be “Well, shucks, guess they should have known better,” instead of “How can we help them?” After all, that’s what college is for, preparing these students for the future.

So, maybe you're thinking "great, this all helps the students, but what's in it for me?" Public opinion is everything, and the rising costs of college aren't helping that dwindling university reputation. What's an easy(ish) solution? Transparency and education. By taking these steps to educate your students, you show you care. You're showing that you understand that it can be cost-prohibitive, and are taking the steps to show them not only how to make it work, but to make it work responsibly. It's a win-win. 

Still unsure? As an Inbound Marketing agency that specializes in higher education clients, we understand your biggest struggles: student recruitment, rising costs, public perception, etc., and are able to offer some advice. When you're trying to make your school stand out to prospective students, being open and honest (i.e. transparent) about things like debt, help you stand out. Prospective students see that and know you are looking out for them and will assist them during this time of growth and change in their lives. We all know this problem exists, so don't be afraid to step up and start a conversation.

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