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The real cost of student loans

  • University of Massachusetts students Elena Valenzuela-Stookey, left, and Nora Cameron in front of Machmer Hall, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. Both worked as "university helpline operators" over the summer and found themselves fielding calls regarding financial aid, student loans and other complex issues. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS


Monday, October 22, 2018

We are coming to a reckoning on the cost of higher education and student debt. Over the summer, University of Massachusetts Amherst student hotline workers found themselves answering high-stakes questions at the intersection of college tuition, student loans and financial aid. 

“I had parents talking to me … as if I had some sort of authority, or that I had some sort of power,” said Elena Valenzuela-Stookey, a senior who worked a minimum-wage job at the 12-person call center this summer. She wished she could tell them, “Hi, this is Elena. I’m a student who was trained two weeks ago and don’t actually have any power. I’m not even sitting in the office you think I am.”

UMass Amherst has operated the helpline for several summers, and operators fielded questions about every aspect of college life, from parking to dorms to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA). But of the 11,804 calls the center took over 11 weeks this summer, Valenzuela-Stookey and her coworker Nora Cameron said the majority came from the financial aid and bursar’s offices, and dealt with “everything from explaining what tax forms to file if your federal aid application was randomly selected for verification to breaking down tuition bills for those with sticker shock,” reporter Dusty Christensen wrote (“Feeling helpless at the helpline: UMass student operators faced ‘barriers’ assisting others with financial aid” — see page 1). 

The cost of a four-year college education at a public institution has tripled over the past three decades, even when adjusted for inflation, according to The College Board. Meanwhile, U.S. Census data shows that mean family income has increased just under 17 percent in the same time frame. And public funding at public universities has dropped 14.5 percent in Massachusetts since 2001, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. This is a perfect storm for a crisis.

The complex bureaucracy that has sprung up around funding college educations — along with the necessity for the UMass Amherst helpline itself — is a symptom of a system that is so broken that it will take significant societal shifts to fix. Higher education, even at supposedly budget-friendly public colleges and universities, costs so much that students and their families are forced to take on crippling amounts of debt — debt that has changed the way students navigate their lives into adulthood. 

In one 2016 poll from Consumer Reports National Research Center of Americans living with student loan debt, 44 percent cut back on day-to-day living expenses; 37 percent delayed saving for retirement or other financial goals; 28 percent delayed buying a house; and 12 percent delayed marriage. Most damning: 45 percent said that college was not worth the cost.

The cost of college needs to be slashed. Solutions are multifaceted and include reexamining our tax structure, increasing minimum wage, cutting administrative bloat at universities, and protecting students and families from predatory lenders by making a student loan “bill of rights” state law. That’s just a start.

As Cameron said, the call center’s supervisor advised student workers: “The university is a business, treat the student like a customer we need to keep.”

A college education should not be a business transaction that leaves students with such a burden to bear.