April 27, 2012

Preparing to face debt

The Office of College Aid should more actively engage with students over expenses.

One trillion dollars. That’s the total amount of student debt in the United States as of Wednesday. With good reason, this inauspicious milestone has prompted nationwide protests and events to mark the occasion. While this unprecedented level of debt—it now surpasses the total amount of credit card debt in America—is rightly a cause for deep concern amongst U of C students, it should not be their burden alone. The University should also view this news as alarming and should accordingly take more initiative to ensure that students understand loan and debt policies that will affect them during their college years and beyond.

The University admittedly offers its students respectable financial aid packages, but it could do more to attend to the well-being of its student community by changing the broken status quo. It has a responsibility to do so and should act swiftly to improve awareness of and access to its financial assistance offerings. Currently, College students wishing to inquire about financial aid have no option other than to wander into the Office of College Aid or peruse its website. While information is available for students to seek it out, this arrangement is not ideal; the University has a duty not merely to make such information accessible, but to disseminate it freely and actively. The Financial Aid Office would do well to host and promote events for students with educational materials and administrative support on hand.

Further, as an institution that sends a large proportion of its students on to higher academia, the U of C should consider it an obligation to educate its students about coping with more than undergraduate debt. O-Week and the house system provide ready-made venues for the University to begin communicating frequently about the challenges of paying for a college education. The University must work with students to determine how best to deal with these challenges as they evolve in years to come. Educational programs addressing these oft-changing needs could be put into place and made mandatory—not unlike required quarterly Adviser meetings—within extant infrastructure. This would be an improvement over the optional one-and-done information sessions students get at the start of their college careers.

As Congress debates a possible cap on student loan interest, the future of student debt in the United States hangs in the balance. It is fitting, then, that the key to minimizing the negative effects of debt on students’ financial futures may indeed lie in finding a more helpful balance between institutional and student responsibility. And the U of C should not shy away from taking a new or innovative approach to finding this balance. After all, it is only right for one of the most expensive schools in the world to pay its students back commensurately with sound and realistic financial advice.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.