April 16, 2013

Granting the right to a debt-free education

Administrators should work with activists campaigning for a no-loan policy at UChicago.

This past Saturday, members of UChicago’s Southside Solidarity Network (SSN) participated in a public meeting on post-graduation debt as one of five campus justice groups involved in IIRON Student Network, the anti-corporation, pro-student organizer of the event. The network—also comprising students from DePaul, Loyola, University of Illinois at Chicago, and North Park University—called on attendees to garner support for the “ReNew Deal,” its three-part platform to raise post-graduation employment, reduce student debt, and protect the planet through the creation of green jobs across the country. While public support or condemnation of this sort of initiative lies beyond the University’s self-imposed political neutrality, the administration should seriously consider the no-loan policy demands advocated by SSN on our own campus.

Although the ReNew Deal is just a theoretical platform, it reflects the growing national anxiety regarding student debt, which recently surpassed $1 trillion. Its principles are made manifest in legislative efforts at the national level: House Bill 1330, or the Student Loan Fairness Act, which both Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Representative Danny Davis (D-IL) told IIRON they would cosponsor. The bill—which would provide loan forgiveness after 10 years of payments at 10 percent of discretionary income, cap loan interest rates at half the current amount, and include extra loan forgiveness for public service jobs—has not yet gotten out of committee.

While this bill should undeniably be of interest to all students, including those at UChicago, the University as an institution has an opportunity to address those same concerns locally.

SSN’s no-loan campaign provides a necessary outlet for students and administrators to work together to relieve the growing burden of student debt in a way that is beneficial to both sides. Administrators have already agreed to meet with SSN on Wednesday. The University has also demonstrated its support for converting loans as often as possible to grants through the Odyssey scholarships, created with an anonymous donation of $100 million in 2007. The donor specified that in order for him to pay the full amount, the University had to do its part and “build” an endowment worth $38 million by 2010—and it did. Now, more than 1,000 students in the College receive Odyssey scholarships that convert approximately $3,500 per year per student from loans to grants, which means less debt upon graduation. The UChicago Promise program, one of whose components eliminates loans for admitted students from the Chicago area, is also an important sign of progress and the administration’s commitment to the no-loan objective. But with a tuition increase of four percent coming up next year, even with a 5.1 percent increase in the financial aid budget, the $60,039 price tag for a UChicago education means it’s not yet time to rest.

Coming off the news of a record-low acceptance rate and a record-high ranking, the administration has added incentive to keep up with its peer institutions. As the Maroon reported last week, Columbia and University of Pennsylvania, both with endowments close to the $6.57 billion of UChicago, already have no-loan policies, as do Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford—five out of the top ten schools in the U.S. News rankings, in which UChicago is quickly solidifying a prominent place. To be worthy of the ranking and the prestige that the admissions office clearly worked hard to attain, a no-loan policy is a necessity—showing prospective students, parents, and future alumni that the University can put its students’ needs first. The current first-years, the Class of 2016, are also one of the most socioeconomically diverse classes to enter the College, which the News Office attributed to the added incentive of the Odyssey scholarships. If Admissions wants to continue widening the range of student voices, and supporting the College atmosphere as one of critical thinking and challenging assumptions, a no-loan policy can only assist them in attracting more students from a variety of backgrounds.

When student leaders from SSN enter their meeting with Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid James Nondorf and Executive Director for University Aid Amanda Fijal this week, both sides should keep an open mind. It’s important to recognize what the administration has already done toward reducing loans for students, but it’s equally if not more important to recognize how much more potential it has to help all students. A no-loan policy, especially by 2014–2015, is not only a savior for the numerous students who receive need-based aid, but also a vital step in maintaining UChicago’s reputation as an open and inclusive environment.

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