By Caleb Bissinger
In March, while seniors reveled in their final weeks at Kenyon, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau broke startling news: the outstanding student loan debt in the United States now exceeds $1 trillion. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, Two-thirds of college seniors who graduated in 2011 had student loan debt, with an average $26,600 per borrower.
At Kenyon, the average debt burden hovers around $20,000.
Thats not nothing, President S. Georgia Nugent said. But thats $20,000 for a four-year period. And the federal government estimates that your premium in earnings for having an undergraduate degree is at least $1 million over a lifetime so I think some of the obsessing over the debt is a little misplaced.
According to Nugent, soon to be released institutional data says 80% to 85% of recent Kenyon grads are employed, and a fair number of other alumni are willingly unwaged going to graduate school, for example, or joining the Peace Corps.
Even so, debt is a decisive factor in many seniors post-grad planning. Im deciding between entering the workforce or following my dream as a musician and DJ and producer, Luke Frisher 13 said, and obviously the latter route is going to provide less stable or consistent, and possibly smaller, income. Is that even a choice I can make?
Frisher estimates hell have $30,000 is student loans come gradation. Its intimidating, he said.
As soon-to-be grads budget for an uncertain future, the College will be doing something similar. The class of 2016 needed $678,859 more need-based financial aid than budgeted. That increase in need will follow the class for four years.
While administrators say the need was lower than expected for all other classes, Caitlin Barker 13 claims she felt the shift this year. They decreased my grant and increased my loans, she said. They also increased my family contribution rather substantially this year. My family income also went up a little bit, but not in the proportion that you would expect from the amount of increase.
The changes werent enough to affect Barkers enrollment status, but they took her family by surprise. My mom did write a letter to the financial aid office, and they essentially said, were really stretched thin this year.
Kenyon, like many of its peer institutions, faces a great challenge: supporting socioeconomic diversity in the student body while keeping the Colleges net revenue up.
For a place like us, in order for there to be access for people who can in no way afford it, you have to also have a certain percentage of people who can pay the full tuition, Nugent said. Somethings got to give, but I have never seen a good solutionto the problem.
The class of 2016 has the highest number of students of color, of first-generation students and of international students in the Colleges history. We over-achieved on our institutional priorities last year, Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Jennifer Delahunty said. Can we afford to continue to do that? No. But did the board give us $400,000 more for the freshman aid budget? They did.
While the trustees acknowledge the need for additional aid resources, fundraising initiatives have fallen short in the past. The We Are Kenyon campaign raised $60 million for financial aid, doubling the Colleges aid endowment, but it still missed its goal by more than $10 million.
Meanwhile, tuition climbs higher. For 2012-2013, full freight at Kenyon is $54,760.If tuition continues to rise at its current rate roughly double the rate of inflation a Kenyon diploma will cost more than $500,000 in 20 years.
Its going to be harder from here on out. Theres no doubt about it. Delahunty said. Those jobs didnt come back. People are not confident about the future. Investing in college is a four-year act of faith.
Last year marked a real change in tone in parents. They used to come and wed talk about whether the son or daughter should get a merit scholarship, and last year some of my conversations were uncivil, Delahunty said. The anxietys amped up about the price.
Its not just Kenyon thats facing challenges. Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology both recently announced they are converting some of their student grants into loans. This fall, Wesleyan University reneged on its promise to admit students regardless of financial status.
And as other schools scramble to raise revenue, Kenyon sometimes pays the price. We got all these kids plucked off our waitlist at schools that I was stunned took them, [but] they were low on net revenue and they wanted our full-pay kids, Delahunty said. We had an inordinate growth in what we call summer melt last year. We lost a lot of students who had resources to other colleges. Just two weeks before first-year Orientation, Kenyon lost an incoming student to Pomona College.
There were years when I first started here, when you had room on the waitlist with dollars for students, Delahunty said. You could call a student up and say, I got a spot, and I got a scholarship for you. That was so beautiful, and those days are probably gone.
In the meantime, Kenyon has expanded its merit aid offerings. Already, 15 percent of the student body receives merit aid.
This year, the College rolled out five full- and five half-tuition merit scholarships. And while Delahunty is glad to see the College rewarding strong students, she admits merit aid can be a kind of discount for full-pay students. We have to fix the needs analysis system if were going to get rid of merit aid, she said. Needs analysis all the forms that families fill out to say how much they can contribute youve got families that are barely making six-figures that the federal methodologys expecting them to contribute a fourth of their income to college. The system is broken and merit aid is just a Band-Aid on that system.
Whether there will be substantive change remains to be seen. What I wish we could do is institute something that would really be like the G.I. Bill was, Nugent said. That we would have a national service program that would have people coming out of high school, putting a couple years into national service when our country needs infrastructure desperately, gaining some maturity and job experience, and then getting a meaningful grant from the government to complete their education.
While the College figures out its financial future, Barker isnt too worried about her own. Going into life after Kenyon I honestly havent thought too much about my loan debt, she said. Her parents have offered to help her pay down her debt, which is between $20,000 and $25,000. They also see it as a really good way for me to build up credit, and both of them had good experiences paying off their student loans, she said.
Frisher, however, wonders if the cost of Kenyon has colored his opinion of the place. I cant embrace [Kenyon] because I feel like its put such a burden on my family, he said. This place is all about community and being able to really embrace Kenyon as this idealistic place that I love, and [that] Im going to have all these nostalgic memories about for the rest of my life. And I feel like Ive been a little unable to do that, primarily for financial reasons.
At the same time, he concedes, Im getting the same education [as someone who pays full tuition] for a fifth of the price. Maybe I deserve to have to fill out some forms and go through a little hardship. Maybe I should be more grateful to this place, because I am able to go here.