By Alexander Gelfand
P.J. Bodnar knows something about responsibility and sacrifice. The 34-year-old former police officer from Half Moon Bay, California, was wounded in the line of duty and suffered permanent nerve damage in both arms. Unable to serve, with three children under the age of five and a wife in graduate school, Bodnar knew he needed to complete his education if he wanted to support his family and pursue his dream of re-entering public service.
That’s why he enrolled in 2007 as a full-time student in the School of General Studies, the finest liberal arts college in the country created specifically for students with nontraditional educational backgrounds. That’s also why he’s so frustrated — not with the uncontrollable circumstances that led to his forced retirement from a job he loved, but with a financial aid system that seems intentionally designed to make his life even harder than it has to be.
Like 70 percent of General Studies students, Bodnar receives financial assistance — from the university, from the federal government, and from private lenders — to pay for his education and living expenses. And, as it is for many GS Students, that assistance is simply not enough.
Like anyone else seeking financial aid, Bodnar submitted a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form that was used to determine his financial need. But last year, he came up nearly $20,000 short, and had to put roughly $10,000 on his credit cards, which charge interest at a rate anywhere from 18-30 percent. This year, despite receiving one private loan, one federal loan, one federal grant, and an institutional scholarship, Bodnar figures he’ll be another $12,000 in the hole — in part because the financial aid system is geared toward helping traditional students aged 18-22 years old who enjoy parental support, rather than nontraditional students like him.
“They don’t take into consideration any of the extra expenses that I have,” he says, the exasperation rising in his voice. “They don’t take into account that diapers are expensive, child care is expensive, commuting is expensive.” (Bodnar’s wife is earning a PhD in molecular biology at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and the family rents a home in Long Island.) At this rate, he expects to be $80,000 in debt by the time he graduates; not a great place to be for a family man in his late 30s with plans for law school and a career in public service.
Bodnar is not alone. A series of events — some welcome, like the full integration of General Studies into the Columbia undergraduate curriculum; some not, like the skyrocketing institutional expenses that have inflated college tuition costs across the country — have conspired to make a Columbia undergraduate education more expensive than ever before. Despite the tremendous strides that GS has made in improving the overall educational experience for nontraditional students at Columbia, the financial aid and fundraising mechanisms that make such an education possible for adult and returning students have not kept pace with the changing economic environment. As a result, student debt loads are ballooning, and many students face unappealing choices.
Some, like Bodnar, fear that pursuing a first-rate education may mean that they won’t be able to afford to send their own kids to college. For others, it means that other dreams will have to be deferred. This spring, General Studies Student Council President Brody Berg expects to graduate with a degree in computer science — and somewhere between $100,000 and $150,000 in debt. A former software developer for Microsoft with a passion for literature, Berg looked forward to broadening his intellectual horizons at one of the world’s premier liberal-arts institutions. Yet his academic options are tightly constrained by his looming debt obligations. “The debt load has an effect even as I register for classes, because I know that I’m going to need an enormous income to pay off my loans,” he says. “I’m attending one of the best universities in the world, and all of my choices are determined by what’s going to get me a job.” The terrible irony here is that, early in his Columbia career, Berg helped found hungermaps.org, a nonprofit that provides software to organizations that fight hunger nationwide. Yet Berg doubts that he will be able to pay off his debts on the income he makes helping hungry people find sustenance. “I am not alone in being forced to make the trade-off between paying loans and doing what I feel is the powerful moral imperative with my skills — to help those in more need than myself,” he says. “Many students are also caught in this dilemma or even in the troubling quandary of being an older student forced to delay parenthood even longer while they pay back loans.”
“Without a doubt, graduating with that kind of debt is going to affect the choices you are going to make regarding what to do with your degree,” says Susan Feagin ’74, executive vice president for development and alumni relations. Like many General Studies administrators, Feagin, who is herself a GS alumna, acknowledges that GS students face financial hurdles that many other Columbia students do not. Yet she also points out that the reasons for this are complex. And while remedies are at hand, they will require time, effort — and a great deal of money.
At the heart of the problem lie two interrelated issues: the unique nature of the School of General Studies, and the equally unique nature of its students.
Historically, adult education programs segregated their nontraditional undergraduate students from the traditional undergraduate student body. That was the case with Columbia’s own University Extension program, which offered nighttime professional courses to working adults beginning in 1904. Following World War II, the G.I. Bill transformed the model of a closed undergraduate system, as older students began entering college in record numbers. The School of General Studies had its origins in that revolutionary moment, and it became a freestanding college with its own faculty, admissions, and advising structure. Initially progress was gradual: “When I was going through General Studies 40 years ago, it was more like a continuing education kind of feeling rather than being a full-fledged undergraduate at Columbia,” Feagin recalls. But by the 1980s, most General Studies students were taking the same basic curriculum as Columbia College students. In the 1990s, the School of General Studies shed all of its nondegree continuing education programs except for the Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program, and began moving toward closer academic alignment with Columbia College, offering an identical curricular experience to nontraditional students — a process that Peter Awn, dean of the School of General Studies, describes as being 95 percent complete. “No other Ivy League university has a freestanding college that fully integrates nontraditional students into its undergraduate program,” he says with obvious pride.
Yet that integration has come at a cost. General Studies students now attend the same classes as other Columbia undergraduates and enjoy access to the same world-class faculty. As a result, they are also being asked to pay the same tuition — just over $1,200 per credit hour, or roughly $36,000 annually for a full-time course load. (This does not include living expenses, which the University estimates at over $18,000 per year, but which might reasonably be far higher for many nontraditional students, who are not guaranteed University housing and who often have families to support.) At first glance, this seems only fair: you get the same education, you ought to pay the same money. But in this case, financial parity is an illusion and the true cost of a Columbia education is often much higher for nontraditional students than for traditional ones.
To begin with, the amount of institutional aid available to General Studies students — the amount of money that Columbia itself contributes to their financial aid packages — is far lower than the amount available to their traditional counterparts. On the surface, the reason for this is simple: while Columbia College enjoys a $200 million endowment, the School of General Studies has only $30 million in reserve. That’s hardly surprising; Columbia College has been around for 250 years, while the School of General Studies has been in existence for only 60.
Furthermore, as Feagin explains, the University has not always done all it could to reach out to General Studies alumni for support. “For a very long time,” she says, “there was a presumption shared by both the university and GS that once they graduated GS alumni were not going to behave the way that other alumni would,” at least in terms of donating money. As it turns out, that presumption was entirely wrongheaded; alumni surveys overwhelmingly demonstrate that GS students feel passionately about the transformative power of General Studies. Nonetheless, says Feagin, the school has only recently begun to build a development organization that is as “concerted and effective” as the one employed by Columbia College.
The relative paucity of the GS endowment has a direct impact on financial aid, since less money is available to GS students in the form of institutional grants and scholarships. Financial aid professionals use the term “discount rate” to describe the amount of tuition funds that is returned to students in the form of aid. According to Curtis Rodgers, dean of enrollment management and communications, the discount rate is roughly 40 percent for Columbia College students, but only 22 percent for General Studies students — a discrepancy that is principally, but not entirely, due to the relative size of the colleges’ endowments, since tuition revenue also contributes to the discount rate. In both areas GS is focused on achieving parity with Columbia College; at present, however, GS students must shoulder a larger portion of their educational costs — and unlike most traditional students who are expected to receive financial support from their parents, they must typically do so alone, often while supporting families.
Not surprisingly, that discrepancy is a source of consternation to many General Studies students. Given the fact that they now enjoy the same education and pay the same tuition fees as other Columbia students, many wonder why they shouldn’t also have access to the same pool of funds. As Bodnar puts it, “If we are going to have to pay the same for credit hours, we should have access to the same endowment.” Unfortunately, as Feagin explains, sharing the wealth between colleges is not so easy. “Virtually all of those endowment funds have been designated by the donors for very specific purposes,” she says. “Almost every financial aid donation is made to the school from which the donor graduated. Because of those donor restrictions, it’s not a University decision that we are shutting GS out.”
As important as the discount rate is, however, it is not the only factor affecting General Studies students. There is also the matter of how student financial aid is calculated in the first place.
The Department of Education uses the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to determine the amount of money that a student’s family can be expected to contribute to their education. The financial aid office then subtracts that sum from the estimated cost of attending college in order to determine the student’s financial need. So far, so good – for a traditional student, at least. The FAFSA works well when the applicant is 18 years old, has virtually no income or expenses, and can expect at least some parental support. For a thirtysomething student with his or her own kids to feed who must abandon a paying job in order to attend classes, however, the FAFSA offers only a glimpse of an exceptionally nuanced picture.
With fewer institutional funds available to them and a raft of hidden or unrecognized costs, many General Studies students must turn to private lenders to cover their expenses. Yet as the current financial crisis worsens, more and more private lenders are pulling out of the educational loan business, further restricting students’ options.
Attending part-time is an attractive solution for some, since it allows students to spend more time earning money. But it, too, has its pitfalls. Although part-time enrollment makes it easier to manage educational expenses, extending the time spent in school creates additional costs: in addition to the increase over time of the secondary and tertiary costs associated with being a student (rent, books, health insurance), by working and studying part-time one forgoes both a full-time income and a full-time courseload (which would allow for a quicker graduation date and quicker entry into the full-time work force).
And, as Maxcina Njoroge, a 36-year-old former dancer and parttime student considering a major in film studies or creative writing points out, less federal aid is available to part-time students than full-time ones. Moreover, taking the slow track — Njoroge first enrolled in 2005, and has so far racked up only two-thirds of the credits she will need to graduate — does not guarantee that one won’t wind up deeply in hock: Njoroge expects to accumulate approximately $56,000 in loans, some of them from private lenders. In the meantime, she works two or three jobs at a time, and shares an apartment with two roommates. “I’m not living the kind of life I’d like as an adult who’s been out there in the working world,” she says.
Finally, there is the issue of how the financial aid office itself determines financial aid eligibility. Columbia College students, for example, are awarded aid according to a “full-need” funding model, meaning that merit does not enter into the equation, and all of a student’s possible funding sources — most notably, their parents — are considered. Yet according to Awn applying the same full-need model to a nontraditional General Studies student would be “unworkable.”
“What do you do with a 30-year-old student with two kids whose parents are still alive — ask the parents for tax returns?” he asks. Ignoring parental income entirely wouldn’t work, either; doing so could mean raiding the school’s limited endowment to provide support for a “25-year-old who makes $10,000 a year working part-time, but whose parents are worth millions.”
Historically, the financial aid office has attempted to circumvent this problem by evaluating General Studies students primarily on merit, thereby sidestepping the thorny issue of assessing nontraditional student need. As debt loads have swollen, however, it has become clear that this merit-based model is not working, either. “The system is broken, and needs to be fixed,” says Bodnar.
And therein lies the ray of hope in this otherwise bleak financial picture. The system is indeed broken, and it does indeed need fixing; but students and administrators alike are doing just that, seeking solutions at both the national and local levels.
Bodnar, for example, traveled to Washington, D.C. last spring with a delegation from the office of the President of the University to lobby Congress for increased federal financial aid. He intends to return next year for the same purpose. Similarly, Matan Ariel ’06, a former representative to the University Senate who graduated with more than $90,000 in debt and now works for Google, helped spearhead the drive to pass a National Tuition Endowment Act. The NTEA was designed to generate additional student aid by eliminating waste within the federal financial aid system — for example, by ending subsidies to private lenders. While the NTEA never made it through Congress, “almost all of the various loopholes we identified were addressed by other legislation passed in the past year and a half,” Ariel says.
Closer to home, Awn says that the administration is working to improve the way in which it evaluates student need. Within a year or two, he expects there to be a more sophisticated hybrid model in place that awards aid to nontraditional students on the basis of both merit and need. Meanwhile, Susan Feagin, who oversees all of the fundraising programs that collectively comprise the $4 billion Columbia Campaign for Undergraduate Education, wants “to bring to GS some of the energy that already exists in Columbia College fundraising.” A year ago, she formed the Columbia Campaign Council for Undergraduate Education (CCC), a volunteer committee made up of General Studies and Columbia College alumni who have donated six figures or more, with the goal of encouraging other General Studies alumni to become involved in the crucial task of growing the school’s endowment.
For Larry Lawrence ’69, BUS ’71 and one of the CCC’s three co-chairs, the committee is indicative of the collaborative spirit that exists across the divisions of the University. “Today I think that the understanding of GS’s mission and the acknowledgement that it can enhance and diversify the rest of the undergraduate population is something that’s well understood from top to bottom in the administration, which is something that’s historically unique,” Lawrence said. “We’re all working to find the best way to deliver the message about what’s going on at the University and what alumni can do to help.”
Still, as Lawrence points out, although Columbia College and General Studies share centralized resources such as faculty and buildings, most financial aid funds are drawn from each school’s endowment and from gifts that are often school-specific. As a result, increasing the GS endowment by giving back to one’s alma mater is a task that alumni may accomplish personally, as Feagin exemplifies: 10 years ago, she established the Susan K. Feagin Scholarship Fund, and she’s been contributing to it ever since. With some $100,000 in the kitty, it now provides approximately $5000 a year in funding for a GS student.
Endowed scholarships like Feagin’s have allowed General Studies to increase its financial aid budget by 17 percent for the 2008-2009 academic year, pumping an additional $1 million into the pockets of continuing students with the highest demonstrated economic need and substantial student loan debt. Which is not to say that the job is done; far from it. Feagin wants to raise $15 million in endowed scholarships and another $10 million in annual funds for the School of General Studies by 2011, and after two years of effort, the current tally stands at $7.5 million. “We’re a little behind where we would like to be,” she says. Still, she remains optimistic — as does Awn, who knows better than most what GS alumni can achieve when they put their minds to it.
“The future is enormously bright; it’s just a matter of getting there. And the commitment is there up the food chain,” he says. “But these things don’t happen overnight.”