My Response to One Wisconsin Now

I think open letters are great. I think they provide a means for productive dialogue. I’m sure that by now many of you have seen the recent study published by One Wisconsin Now (an organization that I believe has their heart in the right place). But the data they’ve published simply doesn’t add up. This letter is solely my opinion and doesn’t represent anyone else in this community. Maybe I just read it wrong. But, I read about it a ton…and I came to the same conclusion. I’d invite any input you all have. And, I hope I can be proven wrong. Well, kind of.____

Good morning,

I’m writing to you this morning as an individual concerned about the implications of your recently released survey on student debt. To be upfront, I don’t work in higher education. I do however have a vested interest in enrollment management, an overarching umbrella that, among other things, encompasses the student debt debate. I manage an online community of enrollment management professionals (#EMchat & http://www.emchat.net), and this is a topic of regular discussion.

I agree wholeheartedly that student debt is out of control. It’s insane. For all of the good higher education does (I don’t believe there’s argument over this), we can agree that the current system is broken. We have institutional priorities that are misaligned with the values schools were founded on. We have state and federal entities cutting funding while demanding stronger, more focused programs. We have an epic battle between non- and for-profit sectors. And, in my opinion, we have a serious lack of financial literacy programming that informs individuals of what they can expect to pay (or repay) for their college education.

I believe the last sentence is where your organization comes in. I give you an incredible amount of respect for undertaking this important study, but your information simply isn’t factual. And, with the attention that it has and will continue to garnish, it does more damage than good. Because of the lack of financial literacy programming regarding college costs, families don’t know what to expect when it comes down to paying for college. They see sticker prices that act as a strong determinant of whether or not a college is a reasonable choice for their son or daughter (or themselves). With the advent of net price calculators, I think the higher education space is gradually moving away from this…although still a long way off as calculators still don’t provide a truly accurate depiction. The College Scorecard released earlier this year doesn’t do much to assist either.

If a low-income student looks at your chart, I can almost promise that their hopes of attending college fall shattered on the floor. $118,000 average debt for a bachelors? Less than 3% of undergraduates have this type of debt. Less than 7% of graduate students do. (Disclaimer: these percentages are debatable, but I can assure you the deviation is small if any). It’s impossible for your stats to stand up. If you’re talking about total debt over the life of the loan, rounded up to a national average of $30,000 at a 10% rate (I’m just using my Sallie Mae rate as an example because it’s ridiculous) with a minimum monthly payment of $50 (which is about $100 less than what the minimum would probably be), the loan would be paid off in 10 years with ~$18K in interest tacked on. Yes, still bogus. But, it’s a far cry from $118K as an average. There would need to be a significant number of students with debt above the $118K threshold (or individuals with millions of dollars in debt), to even bring it close.

But, a low-income student, who would very likely qualify for institutional aid, grants, income-based scholarships and awards, and quite likely wouldn’t pay anywhere near the sticker price of a school (public or private), won’t see this. They’ll see that an undergraduate education will cost them $118K and a graduate degree, now largely considered the new bachelors degree, will cost $180k. Your institute stresses the importance of education equality. With these inflated numbers based on a sample of less than .16% of the total number of students enrolled in college (a sample you cited in your report that is likely skewed toward higher income individuals), you’re sending a message that college isn’t attainable to students and families who don’t know otherwise.

Your intentions are good. Your data is skewed. Your outcomes unintentionally combat your goals.

I’d encourage you to revisit your study and to include more information on how college is paid for, what programs exist for student aid, how discounting works at an institution, and how few students actually accrue this level of debt.

I appreciate your efforts, I truly do. But, you can’t publish this information when it’s misleading and detrimental to a prospective student’s decision making process.

Thanks for your time,

Alex Williams