Putting Their Heads Together
At a roundtable on college affordability, WC President Sheila Bair joined Maryland Senator Ben Cardin and leaders from the Eastern Shore’s institutions of higher education to examine how to make college accessible and affordable for all Marylanders, and all Americans.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., came to Washington College in early May for a roundtable discussion on college affordability, calling on everyone involved in higher education—from students to the federal government—to become more aggressive in finding innovative ways to make college possible for all. President Sheila Bair hosted the event, which drew college and university presidents and administrators from across Maryland’s Eastern Shore, each of whom outlined their particular challenges and successes.
Cardin lauded Washington College’s new Dam the Debt program, which in its first year will reduce graduating seniors’ federal debt by about 10 percent. But after listening to two of those students—Sean Haynie, a double major in biology and chemistry, and Megan Harrison, an English major with minors in psychology and music—describe the financial burdens they and their families still face, he said that if the trends continue, higher education will become impossible for most Americans.
“As Sean and Megan have pointed out, they’ve done everything they can to be able to afford a college education,” he said. “That means they’ve gone to their family and their extended family, they’ve applied for and received scholarships, and they’re still going to end up with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. They did everything right.
“Fast forward a decade from now: If the trends continue, that’s going to be a much larger burden. Right now, student debt is the second largest kind of debt in this country. It has exceeded credit card debt, which I find amazing because I always thought we had too much credit card debt in this country. And the trend line is for that to just mushroom. In the next decade it’s expected to go from $1.3 trillion to $3 trillion in outstanding debt.”
Cardin said he thought he had enough money in his own 529 plan for his grandchildren’s education, but it’s not growing as quickly as the costs to attend. “I think American families are waking up to the reality that they may not be able to afford a college education for their children.”
Murray Hoy, president of WorWic Community College, said a fact that gets lost in the affordability discussion is that over the last several decades, state and federal support for higher education has plummeted.
“The Pell grant in the late ’70s covered 99 percent of the cost of an education at a Maryland community college,” he said. “At a four-year public school in Maryland it was 77 percent, and private institutions it was 36 percent. Today, it’s 52 [percent] at a two-year school, 31 percent at a public four-year, and 14 at a private institution. That’s a significant reduction in public support for education. So students have picked up more and more of the financial burden.”
Barbara Viniar, president of Chesapeake Community College, noted a disturbing subtext to the current debate—that taxpayers resent paying for higher education and don’t see the broader national benefit. Her first two years of undergraduate education at a four-year college were free, “because of Sputnik. When Russia launched a satellite, this country said, ‘We can’t afford to let them dominate so we need to educate more people.’ I don’t see why people in this country still don’t see that we have a compelling reason to educate everyone. Whether it’s work force competition or terrorism, it’s the same battle, and this is the answer.”
Citing President Obama’s push to make two-year community college free throughout the country, Cardin said the federal government can—and must—do more to support all students. He noted the concept of service in exchange for education as modeled by the GI Bill, which enabled those who served in World War II to get free educations after the War.
Juliette Bell, president of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, said she followed such a path to her own success as a PhD in chemistry.
“When I finished college I had no money to go to graduate school, and I was able to take advantage of a national service program that paid for my graduate education in science,” she said. “The requirements were for every year of education paid for by the government, I owed a year of service, either to do research or teach in the discipline I was trained in. It was a way for me to get an education otherwise I never would have been able to afford, and also it helped to increase the diversity in the field in the STEM areas.”
Local governments also can make college more accessible, noted Hoy. Working with Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver, he said they’ve developed plan in which every graduate from a Wicomico County high school—public or private—can attend WorWic CC for free, using three years to finish a two-year degree. The extra time is needed, he said, because many students have families and fulltime jobs.
“This is an opportunity for them to attend,” Hoy said. “They have to attend fulltime, we let them do it in three years. The standard is a 2.0 GPA, which is what is necessary to graduate college. We’d like to raise that … but programs like this can really have a significant impact on students’ ability to make it through the higher education process.”
Cindy Childs, Washington College’s assistant vice president of admissions and financial aid, agreed that there must continue to be as many paths as possible to a college degree.
“It isn’t one size fits all,” she said. “Being flexible and having many options—if we want to improve access we have to have options for everyone.”