When I was a student I earned a four year scholarship to any state school of my choice. Since I liked my hometown university and didn’t want to disrupt my mother’s well being by adding to her stress I enrolled in the University of Houston, the same school that Elizabeth Warren attended at about the same time. It was a happy decision for both me and my mom because that scholarship would take care of all of the costs as long as I kept up my grades.
My first year was exciting to me because I had been incredibly isolated up to that time. I had essentially attended school with the same group of students from second grade with a few more coming from Catholic schools in the area when I went to high school. My neighborhood was my world and I rarely went beyond its periphery. Even then it was to shop at nearby stores or to visit relatives. I was decidedly unaware of the rest of my growing city or the world outside beyond what I read in newspapers and books. Going to a large public university was somewhat akin to being thrown into a shark tank, but I was more than ready for the challenge. In fact, I wanted it more than anything. I saw striking out into a school where I would literally become a number as an exciting way to get a college experience without leaving town and making things difficult for my parent.
My first year at the University of Houston was a revelation. I had a few classes in huge auditoriums where there were almost as many students as half of the population of my private high school. Others, like a German seminar, had under twenty in the group. I went to Greek parties, attended the football games, hang out in the Cougar Den, participated in civil rights and antiwar demonstrations, and saw celebrities up close like Mohammed Ali who was still using his birth name of Cassius Clay. I met students from Alaska and around the world. It was a heady experience during which I kept up my grades to insure that my scholarship would be secure. Unfortunately I was totally unaware that I had an obligation to re-apply for the financial aid each year to verify that I was indeed maintaining a high grade point average.
Back then the process of registration for classes was an abomination. Each student received a specific time to wait in a line and then be allowed into an auditorium where grad students manned desks for each major. They had boxes of computer cards that represented the individual classes according to professor, meeting time and section number. I had to race from one station to another to hopefully secure cards for the courses that I wanted to take. If the cards were gone from one of my choices I had to make on the spot decisions regarding what to take because my scholarship required me to take a certain number of hours as well as to graduate within four years.
As a sophomore I was far more prepared for the onslaught than I had been as a freshman and I felt confident in the preparations I had made for the challenge of securing a decent schedule. In fact I had my fifteen hours secured without a hitch and as I walked to the financial aid station to get my scholarship money and guarantee my classes for another semester I felt somewhat smug. I had little idea that my world was about to shatter.
I handed my computer cards to the worker and gave her my student number so that she might verify the payment for them. She scanned the lists with a bored expression that did not change until she had reached the end and had failed to find my information. She asked me to write my full name and student number on a piece of paper that she used as a kind of guide to run down the list one more time. Still she found nothing and panic began to overtake me. I barely heard her instructions to take my cards and myself to the financial aid office to determine what was wrong.
Once I got to the official domain of loans and scholarships I wrote my name on a long list and sat waiting for what felt like eternity. A rather brusk woman ushered me into her office to find out what I needed. She made no attempt to hide her impatience instead rushing me to describe my problem. Without saying a word she began searching through alphabetized files. Within a few minutes she returned to her desk with a folder that evidently contained my information. Without fanfare she announced, “You no longer have the scholarship. You did not renew it.”
I felt as though I had been gut punched and was hardly able to admit that I had no idea that I had to renew the scholarship. I thought that it was good for four years as long as I kept my grades in order. Nobody had ever mentioned to me that there was a yearly process beyond simply going to classes, making the grades and then returning for a new semester.
The woman barely contained her annoyance with my whining that was rapidly turning into tears. She announced that there was nothing that she might do to help. My scholarship was gone, not just for that semester but forever. She made it clear that I needed to move on and allow her to get back to her work with the long line of other students who were seeking information. I left with my tail between my legs because I had no idea how I was going to pay for my classes and I did not want to ask my mother for money that I knew she did not have.
After spending several minutes sobbing inside a stall in the bathroom I screwed up my courage and came up with a plan. I had worked all summer and I had just enough funds to cover the classes and pay for my books. My fun money would be gone but at least I would still have courses to attend. I managed to pay for my classes then and in future semesters and never once had to secure a student loan which gets me to the heart of my story.
Back then the cost of college was low enough that I was able to work part-time and earn the funds needed to cover expenses. Today the price tag on even state universities has soared to ridiculous levels. A little work here and there is not sufficient to pay the bills of learning. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that today’s students are limited to the amount of time that they may take before graduating and being forced to begin the repayment process on loans with interest rates that would make Shylock appear benign. Instead of having a set payment for a certain amount of time those student loans operate more like a credit card, growing at a frightening rate as time passes. It can take years for someone to pay them back even when they are lucky enough to land a well paying job.
I find myself wondering what I would have done and where I would be today if the cost of my education had been in the same league with what students now face. I suppose that I would have had to drop out for a semester and gone to work until I had saved enough to return or somehow secure a loan. I managed to pay for two degrees from rather low paying jobs. By the time my daughters went to college my husband and I had to take out loans which took years to repay. The situation students face today is more dire than ever. I paid around five hundred dollars a semester for my undergraduate degree. Their tabs are more in the range of tens of thousands of dollars. Even using proportion based on the increases in salaries over the years the expenses related to university educations has blown up to almost untenable levels. We need to find a reasonable plan for dealing with this, and so far the ideas are not particularly well thought out.
I think that universities should begin the process by cutting unnecessary items from their budgets. We did not have fully loaded gyms and entertainment venues on campus back in the day. We got by with a more bare bones approach to education that concentrated on the basics but still provided exceptional teaching. We can also streamline the student loan business and set up contracts with students that work more like the kind of loans that one might get to purchase a car or home rather than treating them like credit card charges that can take years to repay. There should be lower payment incentives for students who maintain high grade point averages or who major in particularly needed fields. Instead of placing hefty tax burdens on the wealthy there should be tax breaks for those who invest their money in educating worthy students, thereby increasing the number of scholarships or no interest loans available. Grandparents, aunts, uncle, friends, employees, businesses who help students should receive some kind of tax credit thereby making such contributions attractive. I’d certainly rather send my some of the money that I now pay in taxes to a worthy student. Such outreach should by definition include helping individuals pay for trade schooling as well as traditional university educations.
It’s way past time for our country to invest in the education of our youth. It need not mean a great burden on unwilling tax payers and it does not have to be free and without strings. It simply needs to be a complete overhaul that seeks to cut costs, incentivize the process of helping students to pay for college or any form of training, and find ways to simplify loans so that they have a set payment schedule that ends by a certain date. We can make things better but it won’t happen until we get serious and have a bit of compassion for the young people who really do want to make a better future for themselves and the rest of us. We need them to carry on the work of this nation. I can’t think of a better investment for the good of all of us.