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The Boston Globe published an alarming story about the college student debt crisis. It goes like this: colleges recruit/lure low-students with promises of a better life; the students are poorly prepared; they don’t graduate; they start life with a heavy debt, not a better life.
Dean College sits on a pretty, leafy campus in Franklin. A former two-year college, it began offering a selection of bachelor’s degrees only about a decade ago. It now accepts about 70 percent of the students who apply, the same rate as Fitchburg State University. Last year, Dean sent a financial aid award letter to an accepted student whose family, the federal government had determined, was so poor that the “expected family contribution” (EFC) to that student’s education was zero. The college awarded the student a Dean Presidential Grant of $17,000 and another nearly $13,000 in institutional, federal, and state grants, meaning that almost $30,000 of the bill was covered and never had to be paid back. Sounds great, right? Yes, until you look at the larger numbers on the award letter. The total cost of attendance — tuition, room, board, and fees — was $53,120. That meant the gap that this “zero-EFC” student had to cover through loans and other means in order to attend was more than $23,000. Per year. Over four years — and with only modest rises for inflation factored in — that total gap could be expected to climb to around $100,000, not counting future interest payments. That’s a ton of debt, particularly for a degree from a college whose median annual salary for alumni 10 years after enrolling is just $32,700.
To Dean’s credit, about half of its students who pursue a bachelor’s degree manage to graduate. Contrast that with Becker College in Worcester. On its website, Becker talks about being able to trace its roots back to two signers of the Declaration of Independence. It does not, however, mention what US Department of Education data from 2012-2013 show: namely, that just 16 percent of Becker’s students managed to graduate in four years, a number that inches up only to 24 percent when the time frame is extended to six years, the federal standard for completing a bachelor’s degree. In other words, 3 out every 4 students who enrolled as freshmen at Becker failed to graduate. Nor does the website mention that, after all grants and discounts are applied, a typical zero-EFC low-income student is required to come up with more than $25,000 every single year to cover the costs of attending Becker.
This seems to be the operating calculus at many small, private, nonselective or less selective colleges across the region, which routinely accept more than 60 percent of applicants. Consider the average annual “net” prices — after discounts and grants have been deducted — that these colleges are charging students coming from families whose total adjusted gross annual income is $30,000 or less. At a surprising number of colleges, this annual net price represents nearly all of that family’s total income for the year.
It is hard to remember that college was once affordable, that community colleges were once free, that all public colleges were heavily subsidized by the state and federal governments. As these examples show, many young people and their families simply can’t afford the high cost of college, even though a diploma will increase their lifetime of earnings.