“How I Got Into College” is an endearing romantic comedy released in 1989 and directed by Steve Holland. It’s a quirky and silly film, without murder or mayhem, starring Anthony Edwards, Lara Flynn Boyle, and Corey Parker.
The lighthearted movie relates the story of Marlon, a young man who wants to attend Ramsey College in Pennsylvania because his potential girlfriend is also going there. Marlon is not an outstanding student, nor does he possess special skills that would win the admiration of the college admissions committee.
Marlon struggles with mind-numbing SAT questions, with the difficulty of crafting and staging his admissions application video and with significant travel hiccups en route to Ramsey. Since it’s a feel good film, the admissions committee ultimately stamps “Admitted” on his application, and eventually Marlon and his girlfriend stroll the pastoral campus together.
Now, fast forward to the American collegiate landscape in 2013 and name the American college that, second only to Harvard, writes off more of its tuition than any other school. The answer? Grinnell College in Iowa.
But that is likely to change, according to NPR’s Tovia Smith, who interviewed Grinnell President Raynard Kington on a recent edition of “All Things Considered”: “… as we continue to give more and more aid, the numbers don’t add up,” relates Kingston.
Grinnell College and its extraordinary gifts of financial aid to students represent a unique situation. “(Grinnell) … has an endowment bigger than most schools dream of, thanks in large part to the guidance of billionaire investor Warren Buffett,” Smith says. “For years, that’s enabled Grinnell to admit students on a need-blind basis and then give them as much aid as they need. Today, Grinnell effectively writes off more than 60 percent of its tuition.” The term “need-blind” means that student applications are considered on merit alone, not on their family’s ability to pay.
Kington now says, though, that it’s “more than Grinnell can afford without compromising the quality of its education.” According to Kington, eliminating expenses in other areas is not the answer.
“So, OK, we cut landscaping this year. What do we cut next year? OK, let’s stop cleaning the windows … Well, pretty soon you go from cutting fat to cutting meat and bone.” Kington relates that “even the most aggressive cuts will not be enough to close the gap between money coming in and financial aid going out.”
So Grinnell may provide less financial aid, and ask students to carry more in student loans. It’s the logical next step. However, more and more students are growing leery of entering a precarious job market while saddled with significant student loan debt.
Student loan debt, unlike other forms of debt, cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. And there’s a mountain of it out there. “Americans owe more ($870 billion) on their student loans than on their credit cards ($693 billion) or car loans ($730 billion), according to a March, 2012 Washington Post article by Daniel de Vise entitled “College, Inc.”
Grinnell and other colleges may soon be forced to revise their admissions process, and ultimately admit a higher percentage of students who can pay their own freight. It’s a bottom line decision that few colleges, especially private schools, will be able to avoid in the future.
This trend will create universities full of students who can pay their own way or borrow enough to pay. It will impact the diversity of student enrollment on campuses throughout the country. College will become more and more a privilege of the moneyed class.
So what’s wrong with that?
The problem is that we need a strong middle class, one that can include a college education for their children as part of their economic ethos. Consumer spending represents over 70 percent of American GDP and drives the U.S. economy.
A goodly amount of that consumer activity is generated by middle class families buying homes, cars and household goods-and paying tuition for college education. When college becomes affordable and available only to the upper economic echelons of our society, we are placing obstacles in the path of those who would better themselves through education and lift themselves up through their own ambition and work ethic to ultimately become significant financial contributors to our country.
Margaret R. McDowell, a chartered financial consultant and accredited investment fiduciary, is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850-608-6121~www.arborwealth.net), a fee-only registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin.