Paying It Forward: Student Debt at GS
Written by Bwog Staff
Another article from the May issue of The Blue and White. Read on forthe final installment of managing editor Anna Bahr’s three-part series on the student debt at Columbia. This last part looks at General Studies. To review the first two pieces, which examine student loans in CC/SEAS and financial aid for international students, please visit theblueandwhite.org.
Just two years ago, Peter Awn, Dean of the School of General Studies, described the limited financial aid available to GS students as “untenable.” That year, GS students received, “percentage-wise, functionally half the financial aid dollars that [were] available to Columbia College students,” a dearth cornering GS undergrads into a future of student debt. Today, GS has surpassed its $25 million fundraising goal as part of the university-wide Campaign for Undergraduate Education—92 percent of which Awn estimates will expand the aid pool in the form of scholarships and grants. With this addition, he believes “the school has turned a corner.”
Awn’s optimism for the future of Columbia’s nontraditional undergraduate college surprised me. Nearly every GS student I interviewed shared a common grievance—the same frustration echoed in opinion pieces in the Spectator and desperate Bwog comments for years—that the value of a Columbia degree is compromised when it demands that scholars be borrowers.
When Hal Levy, GS ’14, graduates, he will owe nearly $160,000 in private student loans. “If I don’t go bankrupt, at the very least I will have no spending money for ten years. I’ll probably be wearing these same ratty clothes, trying to pay off my loans,” he sighed. GS prides itself on being one of a kind—a unique education, nonexistent at other Ivies, in which a diverse collection of nontraditional students earn traditional bachelor’s degrees. But its current program remains a feasible option for only one kind of student: he who can readily afford it.
No GS student expects charity. But they do expect parity. They pay the same tuition fees as their peers who arrived directly from high school. But Columbia College, a 250-year-old institution, has the benefit of an accumulated endowment; GS, formally established in 1947, has a much smaller reserve. In the 2012-13 academic year, CC and SEAS awarded over $122 million in scholarships and grants to 3,000 undergrads; GS distributed $16.4 million to 1,050 students. Roughly, GS’s aid has half the purchasing power of CC and SEAS.
In the mind of Stephanie Keogh, GS ’14, the problem feels as moral as it does practical. “If you are graduating with $180,000 to pay off, Columbia should feel accountable for that ethically. If [President Lee C.] Bollinger is talking about equality and affirmative action and he can go to sleep at night thinking he’s done everything he can to protect GS students, he’s wrong,” she explained.
Of the 1,500 GS undergrads, approximately 70 percent receive financial aid. It’s a striking statistic, but the amount they are apportioned deflates the admirable quantity of scholarships. 50 percent of CC and SEAS students receive aid from Columbia, with an average grant of $40,441. During her first period of enrollment, the average GS student will typically receive between $7,000 and $9,000 in grants. Since GSers pay on a per-credit basis, this may cover the costs of a part-time student, but for the 68 percent of GS students enrolled full-time, grants absorb only a fraction of the annual $44,090 tuition fee for a 34-credit schedule. That figure stands without factoring in the additional cost of housing, food, personal expenses, and Student Life and Health Services fees. For the remaining third of GS students who take classes part-time, these mandatory costs accumulate and multiply as GSers inch toward graduation.
Still, while GS students may be unfairly indebted relative to their CC and SEAS peers, they are rarely misinformed. GS encourages accepted students to meet with a financial aid officer who helps them through a cost-benefit analysis evaluating potential aid options from the university, federal government, and private lenders. If the costs outweigh the benefits, aid counselors often recommend that recent admits consider accepting admission elsewhere. But these meetings often take place before students have received their full financial aid packages. More importantly, because institutional aid at GS is allocated based on merit, rather than need, many students hope that their academic achievements will pay off via a monetary reward—an incentive which surely contributes to GS students consistently earning the highest average GPA of Columbia’s undergraduates.
Meanwhile, CC/SEAS students are endowed with financial aid that boasts a “$0 borrowing expectation” and guarantees to “meet 100% of demonstrated need.” (For more on the slippery rhetoric of CC’s financial aid, see “Buy Now, Pay Later,” the first installment of this series in the Winter 2012 issue of this magazine.)
Spencer Badesch, GS ’16 and a former professional ballet dancer, works 30 to 40 hours a week at an AT&T store, and, were he a CC student, would almost certainly qualify for substantial aid. He struggles to keep up with a workload designed for undergraduates who can afford to make studying a full-time job. Spencer, already $25,000 in debt, emphasized his emotional strain: “I’ll have a massive heart attack. I’ll be dead before I graduate, I’m so stressed.” Spencer was recently told that, even if he had a perfect, 4.0 GPA, he would only receive around $500 more in aid annually.
This is not news. GS is undeniably and laudably transparent about its limited resources. For many students, the decision is more emotional than rational: “I knew I was going to be screwed, but [an acceptance at Columbia] is an offer you can’t refuse,” said Levy. But the value of a degree can fluctuate. When you’re juggling a job, school, and trying to make rent on time, is the Columbia name worth it? “I hope so. It might have been more responsible for me to move to Alaska and become a political organizer,” said Levy, only half-joking.
It’s not just the seductive Ivy League degree that attracts students to GS. It’s that this school provides an opportunity to study not as a night student, or through some online iteration, but ostensibly as a regular undergrad. From Army veterans to students who took time off after high school to pay their family’s electricity bill, many GSers thought the chance to study as an undergrad at a school of such prestige had long since passed.
So, students get creative. Badesch told me he considered getting married to boost his aid package. He receives no financial support from his parents. But until he is 24, Badesch will be considered a dependent by the federal government. “Independent” students, who do not report parental income, typically appear to have greater financial need and are more likely to receive grants and subsidized loans. A marriage license would knock Spencer into the “independent” column.
On GoFundMe.com, a personal fundraising platform akin to Kickstarter, Kambi Gathesha, GS ’14 submitted the following entry: “Currently, I am in danger of not being able to return to Columbia University to finish my undergraduate studies and receive my degree due to exorbitant tuition costs. Despite the generosity of my particular institution…it is unable to give me more money.”
Gathesha is deeply committed to Columbia and a well-known figure on campus. After graduating from Juilliard’s theatre program and performing professionally with artists including Beyonce, Usher, and Pink, he found his way to GS. With a year and a half left until graduation, Gathesha ran out of the funds he needs to finish his degree and was in danger of withdrawing. His webpage seeks donations towards the $40,000 he needs to graduate—a sum that would supplement both his financial aid package from GS and his federal loans. And while his image recently graced the front page of the Columbia Daily Spectator, Gathesha is no longer listed in the university directory as a currently enrolled student.
In Stephanie Keogh’s experience, phasing in and out of enrollment at GS is standard practice. Keogh reported that many of her friends in GS take credits every other semester—working several part-time jobs during the semesters they spend away from Columbia. There’s a catch. Studying as a part-time student delays graduation, subsequent entry into the full-time, salaried workforce, and the financial security to repay debt. “The fact that you have to drop out—not because your grades aren’t good enough, but because you can’t pay—is humiliating. It’s shameful,” said Keogh.
The GS administration can hardly be cast as indifferent to low-income students. The small size of the college limits the bureaucratic distance between students and administration that can define CC and SEAS. One of the goals of GS, says Dean Awn, is to be “as transparent as humanly possible [about the realities of debt].” Whereas James Valentini, Dean of Columbia College, invites students every month or so to a brief window of office hours, Awn spends his spare time in the GS lounge, mingling with students. He knows them by name, and his empathy for their financial juggling act is in earnest. Keogh thinks that GSers recognize the sincerity of his commitment: “The financial well-being of his students and housing [for GS] are literally all he thinks about.”
But Awn has been Dean of the School of General Studies since 1997. He has the privilege of institutional memory—countless points of comparison that demonstrate majors structural and cultural changes to GS over the years. During our interview, he returned time and again to the abject social discrimination faced by and “pathetic” financial resources available to GS students during the college’s earlier years.
Awn cleaved to the message: “Look how far we’ve come.” And justly so. GS has made remarkable strides, and shows no sign of complacency. Curtis Rodgers, GS Dean of Enrollment Management, acknowledged that the college’s recent fundraising success is “just the beginning of a long-term effort to increase the funds available for GS financial aid.” General Studies aims to achieve a proportionally equal discount rate—the amount of tuition funds returned to students in the form of aid—as Columbia College. In 2009, The Owl Magazine, the alumni magazine of GS, cited the rate to be roughly 40 percent for CC, and only 22 percent for GS students, suggesting parity still remains a somewhat distant goal.
One of Dean Awn’s personal triumphs is the much improved social relationship between GS and the traditional colleges. In Awn’s mind, as he told the Columbia Daily Spectator earlier this year, “the final steps in synchronizing Columbia College and GS curricula” and reconciling the colleges’ cultures comes down to two structural changes: renaming the School of General Studies and including Lit Hum and Contemporary Civilizations as graduation requirements for GS students.
But Levy sees the feeling of social isolation, a common phenomenon for GSers, as being directly related to a disparity in financial freedom. “GS can’t solve the problem of us not being in the larger community until they solve the problem of financial aid,” he explained.
Over the past two years, in an internal review process similar to the recent overhaul made by Columbia College’s Office of Financial Aid and Educational Financing, the GS Office of Educational Financing has undergone what Dean Rodgers described as “significant restructuring,” including the expansion of office hours from 10 hours per week to 40, hiring three additional aid officers, and, for the first time, offering institutional aid for the summer semester to eligible GS students.
The broader economic outlook for indebted GS students is bleak. Not only is the cost of living in Manhattan more than twice the national average, but interest rates on federally subsidized loans are expected to double on July 1st due to mandatory federal budget cuts. This increase from 3.4 to 6.8 percent interest rates could add an average of $5,000 to what current students pay on their loans. Two-thirds of American students today are graduating with loans exceeding $25,000. Of the 10 GS students I interviewed, most fit into the 10 percent of graduates nationwide who owe more than $54,000 in loans; six of them will be over $100,000 in debt.
A self-described realist, Awn is well aware of the endemic GS debt crisis. After all, he’s been managing the same problem, with new progress and new setbacks, for the last 16 years. Awn candidly offers, “I can be optimistic about a future, but you’re the one who has to pay your bills now.”