College education is an expensive venture. Depending on their choice of institution, students can face annual tuition bills ranging from $50,000 at a private, four-year college to a more reasonable $3,000 at a community college. However, reasonable is a relative term. The working single mother with several children may not be able to afford both the cost of tuition and the cost of childcare while taking classes. Young adults working in entry level positions while entirely supporting themselves may find even the most inexpensive educational experience a struggle. Many others in our region who are striving to improve their opportunities for professional advancement may view further education as financially out of their reach.
Washington State Community College provides a high quality educational experience at one of the most reasonable costs anywhere. But, to meet the expenses associated with gaining a certificate or a degree, over 70 percent of our student body utilizes scholarships and/or financial aid. These tools assist our students in gaining access to the institution and help set them on their way towards their educational goals. However, what can be disheartening - and what is the reality that so many of our students today face - is that they will complete even an affordable WSCC education in debt. This results in a cycle of loan obligation which begins within six months of graduation; or, if they don't complete, they are left with debt and no college credential. To compound that, it is possible that the interest to be paid on federal loans may soon be raised from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.
The problem is so pervasive that a March report of the Federal Reserve indicates that nationwide, the outstanding student loan debt has now passed 800 billion dollars, exceeding the debt that Americans owe on credit cards. For the 2011-2012 federal financial aid award year, Washington State students alone have taken out over $5.1 million dollars in student loans. Many critics point to increasing tuition rates as the impetus for student loan debt, but Washington State has raised tuition less than 5 percent over the past five years. Our current annual rate is $3,192. Extensive institutional research suggests that our students are taking out students loans to support not just their educational expenses, but also their living expenses. Federal financial aid laws allow students to use loans to cover costs outside of tuition and books, which include housing, transportation, and child care expenses. In order to make the pursuit of a college degree a viable prospect, more and more students are now dependent on these student loans to support themselves and their families while they work towards the completion of their educational goals.
Beginning this summer, though, students will face restrictions on their access to federal student aid monies. Congress has already acted to reduce lifetime eligibility amounts of the Pell Grant, a need-based grant for low income students. Beginning with the 2012-2013 class, students will be limited to six years (as opposed to the current eight years) of full- time Pell grant eligibility without the luxury of being grandfathered. Thus, students who are reliant on student loans will be forced to advance toward their educational goals more quickly and face mandatory loan repayments. Students who fail to complete their degrees are still held to the same repayment standards. Already, America is witnessing the effects of high student loan debt in an economy where job placement is often slow: more and more students are defaulting on student loans which are unable to be discharged in bankruptcy in court. In addition, educational institutions are being held accountable for the default rates of their students and therefore have to redirect limited financial and human resources to address this mounting crisis.
Community colleges across the country are experiencing the same challenges as Washington State. The open enrollment policies embraced nationwide by community colleges promote access to nearly anyone who desires education and training opportunities beyond the high school level. But, entry into the higher education arena can become a prologue to an unfruitful investment of time and resources if students do not complete their educational goals. Knowing this, we at Washington State are re-adjusting our focus from one of primarily access to higher education to one that places equal weight on student success. In March of this year, Washington State adopted an institutional definition of student success. Every employee and member of our Board of Trustees signed a commitment to promoting and enhancing student success. With the initiation of that pledge, Washington State faculty, staff, and administrators have aggressively worked to identify and examine barriers faced by students and amend policies and practices to align with our success focus.
In conjunction with the college's transition from quarters to semesters this fall, we will begin implementing measures that we hope will lead to greater completion rates for our students. In the upcoming academic year, students can expect to meet more frequently with academic advisors, develop individual academic plans, and participate in financial literacy workshops. By honing in on student success, we will simultaneously be focusing on the issue of mounting student loan debt. We believe holistic advising and financial literacy education will help advance degree completion and thereby reduce the total amount of student loans needed to support educational pursuits.
At Washington State Community College, we are working to turn our aspirations for student success into actionable plans. As the need to increase the number of adults earning college degrees becomes more imperative, WSCC must focus resources on student performance goals. We believe we are turning in the right direction; but, we must stay the course. Student success is not merely an expectation, along with access, it is a responsibility.
Bradley Ebersole, Ph.D., is president of Washington State Community College.