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Death, Sex and Money: Student Debt

Mary Anne Fitzpatrick - I am indolent by nature, and to encourage myself to exercise, I listen to podcasts as I work out. Recently I tuned in to Death, Sex and Money, an NPR offering that poses the “the big questions and hard choices that are often left out of polite conversation.”  In the midst of conversations about death and sex, the podcast did a two-part series of interviews with graduates about student debt and the psychological impact debt had on their lives. The stories were vivid and touching, and the amount of debt some of the interviewees had was staggering, often to fund professional or graduate school.  We have all read disturbing journalistic accounts about college graduates with no jobs and hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for their college education.

But what does the data reveal about student loan debt? Is there a student debt crisis? Beth Akers and Matthew M. Chingos depict a very different picture in their book Game of Loans: the Rhetoric and Reality of Student Debt (2017). Incomes for college graduates have remained high, and data from the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) administered by the Federal Reserve Board indicates that the debt burden on the majority of students has stayed the same or even decreased over the past two decades. In South Carolina, about 60% of our college students graduate with debt and the average is about $30,000. Financial planners suggest that a student should only borrow the amount of money equal to the annual salary in their expected first job. Even graduates who work in prosocial areas like teaching and social work can probably manage $30,000 in debt to secure a career in these fields.

So much for the good news.  The report goes on to state that the real debt burden falls on students who do not finish their undergraduate degree and graduate.  A 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics indicates that, in terms of student debt, students who began a degree program but never received any credential and those who attended for-profit institutions are in the most debt and have a difficult time paying off that debt.  Moreover, for students who do finish a degree, the debt load increases if they take longer than four years to finish the program.

There is a growing recognition that graduation within four years or less is critical to reducing student debt. Most scholarships and low cost loans are geared to a four year timetable and provide four years of financial support. In addition to the extra financial burden of tuition and living expenses, there are significant opportunity costs associated with delayed entry into the full-time employment market.

USC is proactively responding to this reality by helping students to finish their undergraduate degrees in a timely manner. Student retention, persistence and success are the cornerstone objectives of our extensive advising, tutoring and counseling services.  Moreover, we are engaged in a major data analysis initiative to develop profiles of students who have succeeded in their academic careers and to use this data for more informed advising.  For example, a particular student may intend to major in accounting but has received a grade of C in a 100-level math course.  Five years of data on previous student records might indicate that 90% of the students who continue successfully in an accounting major have earned A grades in that particular course.  Working with an advisor, the student can make a more informed decision about continuing in that major and either take the necessary steps to quickly address academic weaknesses or adapt their goals.  Early interventions keep students in school and on track for timely degree completion.

We have a number of other initiatives to decrease the cost of attending USC by reducing time to degree.  Palmetto College brings together the resources of the entire University of South Carolina system to combine the quality of a four-year USC degree with the flexibility of online learning.  Students in our four regional two-year campuses, students who are working, and students who have geographical limits can complete a variety of undergraduate degrees through Palmetto College. Each of our four-year campuses have expanded their summer school offerings.  On Your Time, the program in Columbia, is a suite of programs ranging from completing a four-year degree in three years (including two summers) to “boot camps” to help entering students prepare for challenging science courses, to one-week science laboratory courses in January and in May which free up time in the fall, spring and summer for other high priority subjects.  Summer school has become a true full semester where students can take 15-18 credits. As of May 2015, students are able to use their state scholarship money to facilitate their early graduation. And changes in federal regulations will enable students with Pell funding to use their Pell funding this coming summer.

It is undeniable that college costs are trending up. But the University of South Carolina is committed to student success and we are constantly implementing initiatives that help students earn a high quality degree in a timely manner. This approach is one major way to combat those rising costs and minimize the need to borrow funds to complete a degree.


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