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Good Debt to Achieve Dreams

By L. Jay Lemons, president of Susquehanna University
Patriot News
Winter 2002

The following opinion piece by Susquehanna President L. Jay Lemons, written in response to the January 2002 Lumina Foundation on Education Report on the accessibility of colleges and universities, appeared in the Harrisburg, Pa., Patriot-News. The foundation's report classified more than 2,800 institutions nationwide according to "affordability" and "admissibility," concluding that many colleges and universities – public and private – are "unaffordable." Details of the report can be found at www.luminafoundation.org.

Thank goodness the Lumina Foundation's report on college accessibility did not appear when my family and I were making decisions about college. Its conclusion that only a small number of the nation's private colleges are accessible for most families surely would have discouraged, if not derailed, my hopes of attending a private liberal arts college.

A particularly disturbing aspect of the report is the assumption that loans – which help make college affordable for millions of college students – are an evil to be avoided.

Yes, the cost of a college education has risen and has been an increasing concern for prospective students and their parents. Adding to this worry is the federal government's steady shift in its financial aid emphasis from grants to loans. I concur with the authors of the Lumina Foundation report that governmental commitments to keep college within reach of all Americans should be a critical public policy objective.

But significant institutional, state and federal money is available to help most students attend the school of their dreams, and the notion of borrowing to pay for something of value is familiar to most families. While few like the thought of increasing their debt, many wouldn't own their car, house, or even their business without first taking out a loan.

Borrowing money to pay for an education that can allow young people to achieve their career aspirations is a worthy investment. In addition to providing valuable personal benefits, higher education contributes to the public good. College graduates have a higher earning capacity, are less likely to be unemployed, less likely to require government assistance and are more likely to participate as engaged citizens in their communities. As Mort Shapiro, president of Williams College, has said, the only thing more expensive than going to college is not going to college, both for individuals and for our society.

The commitment that comes from borrowing gives students a sense of ownership for their education. It may give them the motivation to care for their investment - much as they would their first car - making their educational experience even more meaningful.

That was my situation when I left home in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, in 1979 to attend Nebraska Wesleyan University. In that rural, farming community the notion of debt was undesirable. It was a momentous decision for me to borrow to go to school, and yet I could not have gone to my first choice college without student loans.

There was no question that at the age of 18, having the responsibility of signing a promissory note brought me a new level of maturity and purpose. The fact that I had to borrow and work every semester did not detract from my college experience, but enriched it. Having loan responsibilities further motivated me to meet the requirements to graduate.

A cursory analysis of my situation would have concluded that a private college would be beyond my means. Yet, it was at a national liberal arts college similar to Susquehanna University where I now serve, that I found the best fit academically and personally. So, my family and I figured out a strategy to make my enrollment possible – and loans along with governmental grants, institutional scholarships, and campus employment made my dreams possible.

I took out additional loans to complete my graduate degrees. Having just paid off the last of those loans last year, I know personally that the experience was worth the investment.

A young person's dream school should not be dropped from consideration simply because of price and the misperception that students will have to pay that bill exclusively through loans. At most private schools, the majority of students pay less than the full cost thanks to financial aid that comes through institutionally funded scholarships and scholarship funds established by generous donors. While public colleges appear to cost much less than private colleges, the median federal loan debt for students who graduated from public colleges in 2000 was just $1,875 less than for students who graduated from private colleges that same year.

Despite the Lumina Foundation's conclusions, America's higher education system remains the envy of the world because of its diversity and its accessibility. It remains one of the best investments any student can make. Equally important it remains one of the best public policy investments that federal and state governments can make in the future of our democracy.

L. Jay Lemons became president of Susquehanna University in February of 2001. He started making payments on his college student loans in 1986 and paid them off in 2001.

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