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Paying It Forward: Student Debt at GS

Illustrations by Elisa Mirkil

Illustrations by Elisa Mirkil

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

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.

gs2Of 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, 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.”

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  • GS says:

    @GS This reminds me of my friends that are PALS Scholars at GS. They are the luckiest in GS because they have full scholarships, but they only cover tuition and some of the fees, but nothing beyond that. Most of them have about $50k-$60k in debt over 4 years. When this was brought up at a scholarship meeting a couple years ago (and when I first heard about it due to the pissy people complaining that whole night), they used the fact that if they didn’t have that scholarship they would be $200,000+ in debt, so they should be grateful for what they do have. They were grateful, but they also have a “full scholarship” that still requires them to take out double what the average student in America has in student loans.

    Also, most of the people in that scholarship are not the crowd I’d say would be earning more than $100,000+ a year. The point of the scholarship was a mixture of academic merit and community service, and students are required to do a certain amount of community service hours a year and maintain a 3.0 GPA in order to keep financial aid.

    tl;dr even the BEST option someone could be given in aid by the GS school still leaves them with shit tons of debt because it doesn’t cover any of the normal college costs outside of tuition and basic fees

  • Realist says:

    @Realist It seems to me there are two solutions to this problem:

    1. GS to shrink its student body to where it can grant aid on a per-student basis equivalent to CC-SEAS. This appears to be around 400 students, by numbers presented above.
    2. GS students (even those that don’t want to) aim for high-paying jobs like investment banking or consulting because, lets be honest, that’s the only way they will be able to repay these loans.

    Otherwise, the bellyaching reeks of entitlement. “Why don’t I get financial aid if I’m studying music and want to be a starving artist?”

    1. BTW says:

      @BTW Music and art makes up a pretty small portion of our class.

    2. CU_Alum says:

      @CU_Alum But reducing enrollment would also reduce the amount of financial aid available, since most of it is paid for with tuition.

  • What? says:

    @What? What is that last paragraph?

  • GS '13 says:

    @GS '13 Great article. Thanks so much for writing about this!

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Don’t you GSers get it! Columbia uses GS just as a way to make money.

    1. Quit yer bellyaching says:

      @Quit yer bellyaching Oh for Pete’s sake, there has to be an element of personal responsibility here. You ARE allowed to decline to enroll in GS, or *gasp*, not apply. No one held a gun to your head and forced you to take out debt.

      1. Hal Levy, GS'14 says:

        @Hal Levy, GS'14 @Quit yer bellyaching:

        No one forced me. I could have been poor without a college degree! On College Confidential and at GS Orientation, you can watch a great many hopeful GS admits (to say nothing of enrolled students) have that decision made for them when their loans fall through. By divine grace or dumb luck I qualified for loans at age 22, although most of my friends and I hold our breath every year to see if we’ll qualify again, or if we can continue to scrape enough together from friends and family.

        To be fair, if you were admitted to Columbia in any capacity, then by definition you’re overqualified for full-ride scholarships at many other strong schools. So I’m guilty as charged, of buying the education I deserve and not accepting the education that I (a person on food stamps) can afford. I’d argue that anyone who has a shot out of the underclass is obligated to do the same. That was the lesson I got out of Good Will Hunting…not that Matt Damon should have remained a janitor at MIT instead of a student because screw it, he was poor.

        Assuming you’re in CC/SEAS, did you, personally, have enough saved from summer jobs to safely take on the costs of Columbia straight out of high school? Or did you get help from a) your parents or b) Columbia? Because of course there’s no shame in that. It’s hard to argue that you can only reap the benefits of your hard work based on your family’s standing, or that the most important positions in life should be arbitrarily awarded. How would you feel if Cha…er, an alleged hate crime perpetrator’s family connections helped him snatch your spot at McKinsey?

        Supposedly Columbia weighed in on that debate with the no-loan policy. Still, Columbia doesn’t run CC/SEAS at a loss for charity’s sake. Those fortunate undergraduates are expected to contribute overwhelming financial support and influence in the future. Why is GS any different? Only historical bias and a lack of agitation from the fragmented GS community…I don’t find reasons like age (the median GSer is somewhere in their 20s!) or educational fitness (our GPAs are great!) to be compelling.

        Low GS financial aid introduces some weird problems. We have a surprisingly tiny minority population…only white students get a late shot at the Ivy League? But that’s not the whole story either, because our student body isn’t all that wealthy. Anecdotally speaking, our rate of students on government aid is higher than the rate of CC/SEAS students from private schools.

        Anna Bahr wrote that this is about parity. Why are poorer undergraduates getting far less money than other undergraduates? Personal choices aside, some Columbia undergraduates have cushier rides (greater support services, not just subsidized tuition) than others. And Columbia’s policy is completely ass-backwards in that the poorer students are expected to pay.

        I knew what I was getting into, but I was a little deceived. I thought “nontraditional student” meant something to Columbia, but here it’s merely an excuse to give those students less support than conventional students. Anything about my own situation aside, that’s not okay.

        1. Quit yer bellyaching says:

          @Quit yer bellyaching I’m sorry; I don’t buy this at all. Your attitude reeks of entitlement (“education I deserve”), and you clearly did not do the basic cost benefit analysis of whether the incremental discounted lifetime earnings of a GS degree is worth the incremental discounted cost of debt.

          A Columbia GS degree is worth a lot, but is it worth *that* much over a full-ride state school? For someone committed to a shot out of the “underclass”, the poor decisions you have made and the debt burden you have taken on run a real risk of entrenching you there.

          Law and business schools can charge sky-high tuition and expect their students to self-finance via debt because their students go onto high-paying jobs in corporate law, banking, and consulting. Until and unless GS and GS students have the same expectation, this vicious cycle will continue.

          1. ... says:

            @... once upon a time, a number of years ago, some cc kid wrote a blog post or an op-ed in the spectator about his perceived sense of gs student entitlement when it comes to FA parity. it was pretty savage, ripping apart gs kids right and left, branding them as having an “entitled” attitude because they they would have the nerve to think it might just be a little be unfair that they are charged orders of magnitude more for the same damn product. anyway, turns out that duder used to hang out on college confidential, and in a shocking bout of prefrosh wisdom, he used his real (and very unusual) first name as his handle on there, and i remembered it. moreover, i remembered a saga involving whining and complaining and moaning about how his initial international student FA package wasn’t nearly enough and how he fought tooth and nail with columbia to get them to nearly double it.

            i got into a minor pissing match with him in the comments (i think it was a spectator blog post now that i think of it), posted the links and the excerpts with his hand clearly outstretched at the columbia purse with his rants about the fairness and suddenly the whole comment thread was deleted by the “spectator staff” because it contained “personal details.”

            N=1 there, but in general it seems that the cc kids who tend to throw out the most attitude when gs (kids?) complain about their truly fucked up FA situation, tend to be quite the beneficiaries of columbia’s generosity themselves.

            just sayin’

          2. Hal Levy, GS'14 says:

            @Hal Levy, GS'14 The “personally responsible” thing to do is to suck it up and be fleeced by GS instead of going to a state school, no matter what degree you’re pursuing.

            With that in mind, GSers may still owe hundreds of thousands of dollars more than other undergraduates (especially after taking interest into account), even if they majored in economics. We have every right to expect better. There is an extreme, solvable and arguably class-based disparity here.

        2. Second quit yer bellyaching says:

          @Second quit yer bellyaching I’d have to agree. Nobody forced you to become a human rights activist. You *chose* to wear ratty clothes and have no spending money for 10 years. Had you pursued investment banking and knocked the ball out of the park, you could be free to debt within 3 years. You’re dealing with the consequences of your own freely-made decisions here, bub. Nobody owes you a living, or an education for that matter.

          1. Wow. says:

            @Wow. This line of thinking is why I have been so miserable at Columbia. I thought people here cared about bettering the world, but many I’ve met only care about securing their own financial future. Many don’t care about helping others succeed. Very few I’ve met here outside of my immediate circle of friends care about equality. So many guys have joked about not wanting to do X, Y, or Z because they’ll be president of the U.S. one day. You don’t seem to believe people less privileged than you should be allowed to access the same resources you do. You are part of the problem GS works to fix. You are our driving force for making sure people remember Columbia for its radical kindness and ability to lift each other up and not remember it as the gate keeping all of the undesirables away.

          2. But then... says:

            @But then... @Wow

            How do you reconcile the “radical kindness” that you want to see with the finite resources CU possesses? There are no easy answers. At the end of the day, what the administrators have to figure out is how to make more resources available without hurting ther current commitments. If GS were to encroach on CC/SEAS’s resources, that would only enrage their alumni bases and threaten $20 million a year in alumni donations. Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever left, however improbable, however unappetizing, has to be possible.

            That solution is making GS admission non-need-blind, ie. people who do not apply for financial aid have a higher chance of admission. Like CC’s international student body, I believe the pool of GS candidates is large enough to accomplish this without sacrificing quality. The smaller number of students who are admitted with financial need could be accommodated more generously with higher tuition receipts. Over time, with proper budgeting and care stewardship of resources, a higher and higher proportion of students with need can be admitted. Eventually, if it has accumulated sufficient resources into a financial aid endowment, GS may become the best of both worlds: need-blind admission AND the financial means to support all student need.

            I realize you want to have your cake and eat it too, but economics is all about trade-offs. There are a few that GS has to make.

          3. But then... says:

            @But then... Also, you can not “better the world” without securing your own financial future first. I used to be an EMT. In that world, we were always told to drive slowly and carefully no matter how severe the call. Why? Because the only thing worst than 1 car accident is a second one involving the ambulance on its way to the first. I realize you want to uplift the impoverished. Becoming one of them adds to the problem, not the solution.

    2. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Why should GS students be forced to have what you call “personal responsibility” and not the students at CC and SEAS? Because they’re older? Because they didn’t grow up in the right place at the right time to the right parents? What you’r talking about is not about personal responsibility. It’s about discrimination. It’s about inequality.

      If GS students were all forced to major in Financial Economics so that they could get high-enough paying jobs to pay off there debts, what does that say about education itself? If you care at all about the Columbia community and about the liberal arts tradition it embraces, then you should be deeply concerned by the financial circumstances of the students at GS.

  • Uncle Sam says:

    @Uncle Sam picked up some of our tabs…

  • Cole Cademartori, GS '15 says:

    @Cole Cademartori, GS '15 No one forced me to come to Columbia, I wanted it. However, I don’t think I should have to go massively into debt (at least in comparison to other Columbia students) or change my career path to do so. I don’t see this conversation as belly aching, I see it as acknowledging one of the many differences that GS students face at Columbia. Most GSers have had some sort of career prior to coming to Columbia so we generally understand the financial risks we are taking and do so believing in the Columbia education. This unfortunately does not negate the financial burden. I am deeply disturbed by the attitude that those with fewer financial resources should not even consider an Ivy League education or should only do so only with the expectation of a certain income level in future. This seems alarmingly elitist.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous To reply to you and “Realist” above, a third option is to make GS non-need-blind. Right now, CC and SEAS do not admit international students on a need-blind basis. It’s unappetizing, but does have precedent at Columbia, and is probably the only way in the short term that enables students to not graduate with this debt burden, while enabling a smaller number of students to have more generous financial aid package.

    2. No says:

      @No I reject this completely. A primary purpose for many people in going to a particular school or to a particular program is *precisely* to enable them to change careers. I would argue that if you do indeed change careers, the school would definitely have achieved its purpose — either in providing you the tools you need to pursue your new career, or by perspective as to why your aspirations are unrealistic. I have had both experiences during my time at Columbia.

      If you want to study postmodern anthropology, that’s fine, but you shouldn’t go around thinking the world (or the wealthy alumni) owe you a living or an education. Especially not with 34% acceptance rate ( which, by the way, is higher than CCNY (which is cheaper).

  • No says:

    @No I reject this completely. A primary purpose for many people in going to a particular school or to a particular program is *precisely* to enable them to change careers. I would argue that if you do indeed change careers, the school would definitely have achieved its purpose — either in providing you the tools you need to pursue your new career, or by perspective as to why your aspirations are unrealistic. I have had both experiences during my time at Columbia.

    If you want to study postmodern anthropology, that’s fine, but you shouldn’t go around thinking the world (or the wealthy alumni) owe you a living or an education. Especially not with 34% acceptance rate ( which, by the way, is higher than CCNY (which is cheaper).

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