Degrees of Debt rally dissects tuition troubles

On the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 20, USA Today Network-Wisconsin kicked off the first Degrees of Debt Rally at the Warch Campus Center. The rally explored the personal impact of student debt on current students and recent alumni with a strong focus on identifying potential solutions to the problem of rising costs in higher education.

At $29,000, Wisconsin has the third-highest average student debt rate in the U.S. “Wisconsin is a place that has a lot of options for college—a really great public university system, private colleges—so you would think that it would be accessible and affordable here and it’s not, so that was a big eye opening thing for us,” explained Jim Fitzhenry, business development director at USA Today Network-Wisconsin.

The format of the rally mirrored the inspiration behind the project, which came from discussions between USA Today colleagues about their personal struggles with student debt as recent graduates and parents. “Every time you talk about it, someone has a different perspective or story,” said Fitzhenry.

“We use the word rally as a verb … We want to bring energy and a sense of urgency to the discussion,” explained Noell Dickman, a journalist from the Oshkosh Northwestern who interviewed students across campus and moderated the night’s panel of student and administrator representatives. While Lawrence is the first stop for the project, USA Today plans to bring the discussion to numerous other private and public universities across the state.

Lawrence students were represented by the personal stories of seniors Lauren Phillips and Kevin Buckhalton and Lawrence University Community Council (LUCC) President, senior Max Loebl. While students did discuss the financial risk of accumulating a large amount of student loan debt, the added stress of balancing school and work was a central focus of discussion.

Loebl emphasized, “The reality is that there are plenty of students—some of my friends even—who are constantly strapped for cash just to make sure they can make it through the next term.” Inevitably, some students are forced to leave due to their financial situations. Others students, like Phillips and Buckhalton, make significant sacrifices.

Buckhalton described himself as “hanging on for dear life” almost every term at Lawrence. After buying a car to improve his off-campus employment opportunities, he was later forced to sell it in order to pay tuition. As a result, Buckhalton had to leave his off-campus job.

Phillips currently has three jobs and is working 30 hours per week in order to pay for school. Because Lawrence policy limits students to 20 hours of on-campus work per week, students like Phillips and Buckhalton must find additional employment off campus.

Associate Dean of Students Paris Wicker, an administrator on the panel, explains that this policy is meant to encourage students to focus on their academics and prevent them from having an unmanageable balance between work and school. “It has definitely affected my health,” said Phillips. “Studying late into the night gets hard as well.”

Despite their difficulties paying for tuition, Buckhalton and Phillips each praised the support they have received from financial aid and wellness services and expressed gratitude for the experiences they have had at Lawrence.

While many universities are struggling to manage rising costs, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Ken Anselment called Lawrence a leader in minimizing tuition increases, which have been as low as three percent in recent years.

Anselment spoke highly of Lawrence’s focus on investing savings in a large amount of tenure track faculty members and a low student-faculty ratio. ”We are trying to run a ‘save and spend’ kind of institution here, so we’re trying to constrain our expenses and then we’re taking those savings and investing them in high quality environments,” he explained.

Lawrence is also 24-months into an $84 million fundraising initiative called “Full Speed to Full Need,” which will allow Lawrence to meet the full financial need of students in the coming years.

Financial literacy was another significant topic of discussion. Jamie Cartwright ‘14 commented, “The choice to study abroad versus the choice to start up a business are harder when you have a lot of debt, and I think that it should be recognized that we have these kind of consequences.”

Recent modifications to the CORE program have brought financial literacy training to CORE leaders, who will bring this information to their CORE groups this academic year. Wicker, who also directs the CORE program, commented, “It was fascinating to see how hungry current students were to learn about this information.”

In closing, Wicker emphasized that “taking on debt is not the end of the world, things can be done. You just have to make the right choices.”

One priority of the Degrees of Debt Project is to examine how policy changes may remedy student debt problems. As the rallies unfold at other schools and the election approaches, the hope is that this project will be a resource to understand how specific candidates and their policies may impact these issues.

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