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Tough Lessons On Debt For College Students


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This spring, we joined our colleagues at Morning Edition for a series called Paying for College. It's exactly what it sounds like. We're trying to figure out how people are navigating the college money maze.

Well, decision day has just passed for many high school seniors. So we are packing up our yearbooks, and we're concluding this series by taking a look back at the stories we covered. Morning Edition host David Greene is with us now to help us with that. Welcome, David. Thanks for joining us.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Good to be here, Michel. Of course.

MARTIN: Well, one subject that got a lot of attention on both of our programs was the subject of student loans and debt. We spoke with Abigail Williams who's pursuing her doctorate. And she is more than $90,000 in debt. And she told us that it took years for it to hit her how deep in the hole she was. Here's a clip.

ABIGAIL WILLIAMS: You know, they said, oh, you have X amount of dollars. But then there was something at the end where it was like, when you graduate, you'll pay $900 a month. That was, like, a major wake-up call to me because I recently got engaged, and we're thinking about buying a house. And it's just, like, how can I afford a mortgage when I have $900 in, you know, student loan repayments?

MARTIN: So I know you talked to a roundtable of students, people who are both in undergraduate and graduate school, who had similar experiences. How is this affecting their lives?

GREENE: We spoke to three young women, and they told us that they're thinking about, as you just heard on your program, big life decisions - can I buy a house? Can I get married? I mean, am I in the financial position to do that? You know, how much money can I put into my retirement? And so it's - you know, it's these big decisions, all with this backdrop of this money that people owe.

And the thing that struck me in listening to them was sort of the - they looked back, and they started asking questions - was it worth it? And I just wonder, when you hear stories like this, what that message sends to people who are just coming through high school now. They look at people who are 20 years down the road facing these huge, huge piles of debt and wondering, like, you know, is it worth it? What kind of decision do I want to make right now?

MARTIN: Well, the idea of can I afford to get married, is something that lots of us who've worked overseas have heard from people overseas, right...


MARTIN: ...In countries with stagnant economies, where people say, well, part of the reason people are angry is they can't afford to get married. That's not something you kind of tend to hear in the United States until now.

GREENE: Until now.

MARTIN: Speaking of the messages that people are getting, the comments on your story were very much divided.


MARTIN: I mean, some people empathized with these young women. But other people were very critical. They said, oh, they should just stop complaining. They should just take responsibility for having taken out these loans and kind of get on with it. And I'm interested in what you make of that.

GREENE: The reactions surprised me a little bit because I did not think these three young women were whining or complaining. They really seemed grounded and were being very realistic sort of looking at their financial picture and what they can do right now. But it was an interesting conversation to sort of watch because on one hand, you know, these women were saying they didn't feel prepared. I mean, one let alone go into default. And she said it was because the, you know, letters hadn't arrived, and she didn't realize it.

So there's a question of, you know, should you be responsible for your finances? And, you know, make sure that you're on top of things. But on the other hand - and this is something that ran through the whole series - I mean, what resources are available to people who are 16, 17, 18 years old making these enormous decisions with a lot of money on the line? You know, are guidance counselors there, or are they totally overworked?

MARTIN: A lot of people have kind of grown up with this idea that colleges are need-blind, which is that you get accepted no matter what your finances are, and that kind of gets figured out, you know, later. Turns out that that's changing, too. For this series, you interviewed Georgia Nugent, former president of Kenyon College. And here's what she said.

GEORGIA NUGENT: They do try to accept the class that they would like to have, not taking into consideration financial need. But then as you get toward completing the acceptance of the class and your dollars are running out, you have to begin to take into consideration need. So if I recall correctly, at Kenyon, about 10 percent of the class was admitted with quote, "need sensitivity in mind." That is, there were some students we just could not afford.

GREENE: I think it's a surprise that she was so honest about sort of revealing the calculations that colleges do, which was one thing that sort of struck me. But...

MARTIN: Well, by definition - so as you're saying, there's some kids the college just can afford. By definition, are there some kids that they're admitting because they can pay?

GREENE: Exactly. That was the real new thing here to me that was really eye-opening. And I hate numbers on the radio, Michel, but, I mean, if you can bear with me for one minute. She said if they - if you paint a picture of a college that has $15,000 that they can spend on aid, do they give that to one needy student, or do they split it up and give $5,000 each to three more-affluent students who will then be able to pay a nice big chunk of the tuition?

They attract them to their school. They get the tuition money from these more affluent students. The college is in better financial shape, and that needy student was not able to go there. Those are the kinds of calculations that a lot of colleges are being forced to make right now.

MARTIN: And what response did you get to that?

GREENE: What Georgia Nugent, who was the president of Kenyon College, said is that the colleges are - they don't want to do this. They realize the implications of it when they have to use some of their aid to attract more affluent students instead of helping, you know, less advantaged students. But it's the reality. It's the reality they're facing.

MARTIN: You know, speaking of paying for college, you know, at the edge of the spectrum here, one of our guests was Anton Treuer, who advises Native-American students at Bemidji State University in Minnesota. And he described ways of helping students pay for college, like getting them an email address so that they can fill out federal financial aid forms or providing gas cards at the end of the month when kids are running out of money so that they can actually get to school. And I was interested in whether there were stories like that about solutions that people have been utilizing that might not be obvious to people outside of this world.

GREENE: One thing I think is the financial aid letter that comes that sort of tells you what the financial aid offer is. We heard from students, from a guidance counselor - that thing can be so confusing it leaves you having more questions than answers. And a lot of people said if there's a way to simplify that letter, that could go a long way to helping people.

And the other thing that struck me as we were listening, I spoke to two college presidents, one from the New College of Florida, one from Temple University - both of them making some really hard decisions in these times - I mean, cutting sports, you know, cutting some student services, but figuring out ways to make this work.

MARTIN: So finally, this series is over. But I think we both got the sense that there was so much to talk about that we want to pursue some of these stories going forward. Are there specific things that you think that you want to take a look at that kind of arose out of the series that you really didn't have enough time to dig into?

GREENE: This idea of mismatching really struck me, and I'd love to dig in more. There are a lot of students who, because of their fears of money, were deciding, for example, to go to a two-year community college. And I should be clear, I mean, from everything I heard, two-year community colleges can be absolutely the right decision for a lot of students depending on the vocation they're interested in, just depending on, you know, sort of their dreams for their future.

But there were a lot of students who want a four-year degree, ended up deciding, you know, to begin in a community college for financial reasons, thinking that it would be really easy to just transfer and get that four-year degree. It's not.

You know, when you're surrounded by people who are sort of more focused on a two-year degree, you're not surrounded by people who are in that mentality of thinking about college for four years, the resources might not be there, you're in a different sort of mindset. You know, the numbers show that if you start at a community college, you're much less likely to get that four-year degree. And a lot of people are going that route because of the money squeeze.

MARTIN: David Greene is co-host of NPR's Morning Edition. He joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. He was kind enough to take the long walk upstairs. Thank you so much for joining us, David.

GREENE: Great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: You can listen to all of our stories about paying for college at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.