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College debt crisis sparks reader outrage, concern — and ideas

Neil Swidey’s story showing how college loans often don’t pay off, or even lead to a degree, sparked scads of responses.

I commend Neil Swidey on the excellent cover story (“Hope, Dreams, Debt,” May 22). As a retired career counselor, I have known for a long time that college education is overhyped. Aside from the astonishing student debt that Swidey so clearly points out, the most significant fact in this article is this: “Research by Ohio University economist Richard Vedder finds that nearly half of jobs currently held by college graduates were previously held by people without a degree and do not require the higher-level critical thinking that colleges aim to teach.” Every school guidance counselor should read and remember this and advise students and their parents accordingly.

Tim Parker / Marblehead

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Just want to say that your article is an outstanding example of public-service journalism. I write to commend you and thank you.

Rodrigo Lazo / Irvine, California

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Your recent article on student debt painted a challenging picture for talented, low-income, first-generation students contemplating college. A college degree can be life-changing, and our state’s private colleges — which graduated 76 percent of the minority students who received BAs or above in Massachusetts last year — are leading in some key areas that promote opportunity and affordability. Massachusetts private colleges lead the nation with the highest on-time graduation rate. Our private colleges have the lowest student loan default rate in the country, a reflection of the good jobs secured by graduates, enabling them to meet their loan obligations. Working to reduce student debt, nonprofit colleges awarded over $560 million in financial grant aid to Massachusetts undergraduates while also advocating for increases in state and federal need-based aid and incentives for families to contribute to 529 college saving plans. The value of a college education is more important than ever, and we are doing everything we can to make it available to students.

Richard Doherty / President, Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts

The National Association of Realtors board of directors in May adopted a policy to support federal legislation that would reform federal student financial aid policies. Realtors across the country have seen the problem first-time buyers have had trying to secure a mortgage because of their student loan debt. Under current regulations, the Department of Education borrows money for student loans at one rate but lends it out at different rates for undergraduates, graduates, and parents.

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Paul G. Yorkis / President, Patriot Real Estate Inc.

The evasive answers given by the officials of Curry, Emmanuel, and Dean colleges as to whether $100,000 is too much student debt say it all. There should be federal regulations requiring preapproval ratios, just as there are for home mortgages. Some of that fiduciary responsibility should be on the shoulders of the college finance office.

Bob Sherman / North Smithfield, Rhode Island

So much of what Swidey wrote about and the student experiences he shared were fantastic and compelling. In his article, it appeared that too many of the students lacked a key element that we’ve found helps young adults make good decisions (and by good, I mean affordable) — and that’s an experienced mentor to help them identify and analyze the data and facts available.

Jed Smith / National Director of Development Operations, Bottom Line

There is such an obvious road map: the community college. One out of every 8 PhDs in the United States started at a community college. The 15 in Massachusetts are a bargain and a pathway to a four-year degree that should have much lower debt. We have faculty at Tufts (where I served as provost) that started in the community college system and went on to tenured positions. There are about 3,000 four-year colleges and universities in this country; there are 1,700 community colleges nationwide ready to help solve the problems of debt.

Sol Gittleman / Lexington

This is a great article and begins to get at the core issues. You might be interested in how Steps to Success in Brookline has been addressing this. STS is a partnership among the Brookline School Department, the Brookline Housing Authority, and the private sector initially focusing on achieving high school graduation for low-income students (primarily public housing kids). During the effort to push up the graduation rate from 29 percent to 99 percent, it became clear that tertiary education was itself a challenge. So with a foundation grant about seven years ago, STS began a supplementary program for high school graduates to assist them with either professional training, apprenticeships, or university. This has been hugely successful. I think it provides one model that could be replicated.

Phillip Mayfield / Brookline

I wish that in the course of your otherwise enlightening piece on the exorbitant cost of college, you had looked into the growth of the student life bureaucracy and other administrators at UMass Amherst and elsewhere in the state college and university system. I don’t say that it would explain the full explosion in tuition and costs, but I bet it’s more than just a blip.

Harvey Silverglate / Cambridge

Based on my 40-plus years working in higher education — primarily in the area of enrollment management — and my recent work in the community college transfer space, I have concluded that there are many reasons for the “leaky pipeline” through which promising students fall out of their higher-ed plan. Finances are one of them. There are issues of academic competence and personal confidence (or lack thereof) that lead to attrition. There are also cultural issues, both from a student’s life experiences and on the college campus they are considering.

Kurt M. Thiede / Founder and Executive Director, Community College Pathways

Great job by Swidey, truly. Strikes me like a one-man Spotlight-level story.

Peter Ryan / Foxborough

Kudos for a really insightful article on the college debt crisis for low- and middle-income students. There is another important dimension, related but separate from sheer dollars: time. College is a full-time job, even if the number of hours in classes doesn’t look that high (think at least three to four hours per actual hour in class, plus some if the subject is a stretch). The people I’ve known who weren’t able to make it through weren’t able to secure enough resources upfront for the whole four-year course, including basic living expenses.

Monica Eiland / Medford

This is the best, most comprehensive and human piece I’ve read on the student debt crisis. The parallels between the college loan bubble and the residential sub-prime debt bubble in the 2000s are quite striking. Non-selective private colleges with sub 50 percent graduation rates, high per capita student debt, and anemic postgraduate salaries are analogous to sub-prime housing. They appear to be tuition mills that exist primarily for the benefit of administrators and faculty. This should be changed. It seems like part of the solution is to force accountability through more stringent underwriting standards on student debt; that is, students can only qualify for third-party grants and loans if graduation rates, aggregate postgraduation debt burdens, and median incomes are above certain threshold levels.

Robert Gifford / Newton

The problem with costs at the college level can be linked to the monopoly tied to tenure. Administrators raise faculty salaries, and teachers accede to ever-increasing administrative staffing and salaries.

Richard Paulsen / Wareham

All colleges that accept federal and/or state government funds should be required to disclose graduation rates, average time to graduation, and starting salary statistics for each of the majors offered. With these data, high school students should be taught how to make a business plan for their choice of college. This would allow students to make informed decisions about schools and the amount of debt they will have once they graduate.

Joseph Palladino / North Andover

What we consider to be the “traditional” experience — attending college and moving into the workforce in a linear fashion — is not the norm for students today. Nearly 50 percent of all Americans who attend two- and four-year colleges work full time, and nearly 85 percent work at least part time. For low-income Americans, those percentages go up significantly, and the challenge of successfully balancing work and school is a major obstacle to college completion.

Gerald Chertavian / Founder and CEO, Year Up

One thought I had reading the article was whether there are opportunities for public/private partnerships between an overburdened community college system and struggling small private colleges that are hooked on federal loans and desperate for students. As you note, many of these less selective colleges started off as two-year colleges. Maybe they should return to their roots and expand the community college opportunities available to low-income students and others who may not be ready or able to launch into four-year programs.

Adam Burrows / Jamaica Plain

Thank you for the thorough, sobering, and ultimately infuriating tale of the gotcha game being inflicted on lower- and middle-income students. Most riveting were his tales of acceptance letters replete with misinformation. It seems to me that this is an area ripe for intervention by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The United States now has a simplified and uniform mortgage disclosure process. The practices by private colleges need to be exposed to the oxygen of federal regulation.

Fred Ehrhardt / Lynnfield

Your well-researched article could be the basis for a required course of study in high school. Why not replace “teaching for test taking” with information that will provide students and parents with realistic choices and options such as those mentioned in the article?

Bibiana Nowacki / Franklin

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