At Inauguration, Bair Pledges to Attack Student Debt
CHESTERTOWN, MD, SEPTEMBER 26, 2015—Washington College President Sheila C. Bair used the occasion of her official installation to establish college affordability and access as the first major themes of her tenure. Speaking Saturday morning to a tent full of well-wishers that included U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, State Senate President Mike Miller and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis, the former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation talked about her reasons for accepting the presidency and the mark she intends to make. “I hope my legacy will be one of dramatically increased scholarship funding, dramatically decreased student debt, and the cultivation of new generations of alumni, invigorated and committed to their school, and eager to give back to an institution that was single-mindedly devoted to their education.”
Washington College is well-positioned to contribute to the growing national debate on college affordability, said Bair. “Our tuition increases have generally been smaller than at peer institutions, and our student default rates are among the lowest in the country. “She promised a two-pronged attack to build on that record, “doing everything we can to hold the line on costs while dramatically increasing scholarship funding.”
Bair announced two initiatives toward the latter goal. George’s Brigade, an Admissions and Financial Aid program, will encourage high-achieving inner-city youth to apply with friends and have their applications considered on a group basis — “because we know their transition to a small rural school will be smoothed and enhanced if they can share it with one or more friends” — and provide full financial support once they are admitted. And a broader fundraising campaign labeled “Dam the Debt” will raise an additional $1 million a year in scholarship funding with the goal of reducing student borrowing by one third. “This program will be available to a broad range of families, as we recognize that even families considered to be ‘upper income’ can struggle to cover tuition costs today.” Such initiatives are key to preserving the liberal arts tradition, which “differentiates the American higher education system from others and is one of the reasons why that system is the envy of the world.”
Not surprising for an executive whose prior career established her as a prominent and respected voice on financial-policy issues, the new president devoted the bulk of her remarks to student debt. In her analysis, the root causes of spiraling student debt include a declining savings culture among parents, poorly designed Federal aid programs that don’t hold abusive institutions (mostly for-profit colleges) accountable, state budget cutbacks at public universities, and lax financial management at some schools. “But the biggest problem lies in the uneven nature of this and preceding economic recoveries,” Bair told the audience. “Over the past decade, the majority of households have seen real wages decline, even as the need for their kids to go to college has increased.”
She noted that a total of 40 million Americans carry at least one student loan, an increase of 11 million since the financial crisis, and the average debt load for graduates is about $29,000. Such debt hurts the overall economy as young people postpone big investments such as purchasing a house or a car or starting a business. “I doubt that the student loan debacle will lead to a financial crisis. … But make no mistake, the trail we are on leads to tears,” she warned.
Bair also addressed the question she heard most often from friends and colleagues when her new job was first announced: “Why Washington College?” Her answer included the school’s rich 233-year history and ties to the Founding Era and George Washington, its academic excellence, the support and mentoring it offers students, and an educational experience designed to “open minds, not capture them.”
But the biggest factor in her decision was “the opportunity to give back in this, the likely final chapter of my career,” in ways that will help this generation of college students be better stewards of the economy than her own Baby Boomer generation has been. A Washington College education provides “moral content and grounding for its students, a deep appreciation of the society in which they live, and appreciation of the impact their actions have on others,” she said.
Referring to George Washington’s gift of 50 guineas to the College’s founding, she said the nation’s first president “understood the importance of philanthropy to higher education, the obligation of society to help make sure that future generations have the tools and skills they need to prosper and contribute to the economy. … Let me implore members of my own generation to think hard about the kind of society we are passing on to our young people, and the many challenges that lie ahead for them,” she added. “I can think of no better way for us to give back than to help them graduate and enter the world debt-free, a status most of us enjoyed when we graduated from school decades ago. Let’s make the final legacy of the baby boomer generation one of generosity and caring for the future of our children and grandchildren.”
The president of the Washington College Board of Visitors and Governors, retired Danaher Corporation CEO H. Lawrence Culp, led Bair in the oath of office. In his introduction, Culp said that in her first 55 days in office, “Sheila has already struck the right chord with each of the College’s constituencies. She is aware of the College’s unique character and responsive to its needs. She hopes to make this wonderful college as great as it can be, and burnish its reputation throughout the nation for what it does best: teaching young people to live lives of purpose, instilling in students a love of learning, and building the intellectual habits and moral character of tomorrow’s leaders.”
As part of the ceremony, representatives from various constituencies brought officials greetings. They included Senator Mikulski, on behalf of Maryland’s Congressional Delegation, State Senator Mike Miller on behalf of the Maryland Legislature, Mayor Chris Cerino for the town of Chestertown, Taylor Frey ’17 on behalf of the Student Government Association, Nina Burton for Staff Council, and Professor Carol Wilson representing the faculty, Historian Ellis, fresh from a speaking engagement at Mount Vernon the evening before, brought whimsical greetings from the spirit of George Washington, who, he said, had visited his dreams with guidance for Bair.