Failing economy hinders education

Over 70 percent of qualified high school graduates who choose not to enroll in college blame economic costs, according to a new survey. The survey, put out Nov. 14 by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, asked 1800 high school graduates and 600 of their college guidance counselors about the reasons why qualified students chose not to attend college. The survey cited economic costs as the major reason, with the steps to enroll in college, opportunity cost, economic mobility, and financial aid understanding rounding out the top five.

The sample taken by the survey included only qualified students, meaning that they had at least a 2.5 GPA in high school, had taken a college-preparatory curriculum, and had reached the level of algebra or above in mathematics.

“Given the current state of the economy, family finances are falling and student loans are becoming more difficult to get,” said Erin Delaney, a sophomore economics major at Carnegie Mellon.

The major reason of economic costs includes both tuition costs and the availability of financial aid.

“The economy is causing endowments to suffer so schools cannot give out as much money,” said Natalina D’Aliesio, a senior business administration major.
In addition to these economic constraints, 33 percent of the students surveyed expressed a fear in taking out loans due to an aversion to debt and a lack of knowledge on the way a loan functions.

The survey results were gathered before October 2008’s economic crisis on Wall Street, so this was a factor not taken into account. Willis J. Hulings, CEO and president of the private loan company TERI, said in Inside Higher Ed that he would anticipate a great rise in this percentage if the survey were taken now.

Kathryn White, a senior business administration major and co-president of Strong Women, Strong Girls (SWSG), spoke about the current implications of a loan in today’s terms. SWSG is the Carnegie Mellon mentoring program meant to instill confidence in young girls around Pittsburgh and encourage them to go to college.

“There is a huge negative connotation associated with college loans,” White said. “They should not be considered in such a negative light as long as they do not enslave students after graduation.”

White said she expected a rise in the number of students who will have to consider loans with rising college tuition costs nationwide. She encourages her SWSG mentees never to rule out college and to consider the various aid options available.

“There may be a limited number of scholarships and financial aid may be not be given out as easily, but there is no harm in trying,” White said.

Delaney noted the lower tuition costs of state schools as an option for low-income students. Yet, she expressed a concern that many of the middle class students who can no longer afford college may take up some of the spots previously occupied by lower income students.

In addition to direct financial costs, the study found opportunity cost to be a major factor in students’ choice not to attend college.

Thirty-eight percent of the students surveyed said that they needed to work full-time after high school graduation, with 24 percent of those students citing familial obligations as the reason for work.

“It’s better to make money than to owe money in today’s job market,” said Amanda Sturges, a senior business administration and social and decision sciences double major. “People just figure that they will go to school later.”
However, Sturges noted that there are so many additional reasons that high school graduates choose not to enroll in college.

White has seen many of these reasons in the attitudes of the young women that she and the SWSG group mentor.

“Many of them don’t see college as attainable. It’s not even an option. Sometimes, this is just the parents being realistic about what they can afford, and other times, they have never even considered it,” White said.

White spoke about a recent field trip taking the mentees to the Carnegie Mellon campus and telling them about life in college. She said that for many of the girls, the idea of a hall of classrooms with a design studio on one side and a voice lesson on the other, in addition to the busy and involved atmosphere on campus, really fascinated them.

White spoke to the girls not only on the joys of college life, but also on the importance of a college degree in today’s society.

“A college degree has become a necessity and is the norm,” White said. “More education seems to be the direction we’re heading in. It now seems like a master’s degree separates someone from the norm. This is great, as long as it remains feasible and attainable for everyone.”

To encourage this change, White encouraged policy changes making college tuition and aid more accessible to the everyday person.

In Georgia, for example, the HOPE Scholarship Program guarantees full state school tuition to a student who graduates from high school with a GPA of 3.0 or above.

Indiana’s Twenty-first Century Scholars Program pays for four years at a public state school for low-income students who graduate from high school with at least a 2.0 GPA.

The state of Pennsylvania has no such policy. In Pittsburgh, however, the Pittsburgh Promise provides college funds to the city’s public high school graduates.

The Promise is run by the Pittsburgh Foundation with funds provided by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and various other Pittsburgh groups.
The Promise provided about $3.5 million to 750 students in the 2008 graduating class.

White noted, however, that policy alone cannot change the number of students who choose to attend college.

The change, she said, must be brought about in a joint collaboration between policymakers and society as a whole, particularly in the families and friends of the possibly college-bound individuals through encouragement of the idea and recognition that college really is a possibility.

White was not quick, though, to define success as based only in education and degrees.

“Education doesn’t always fit everyone,” White said. “There are many options for post-high school graduation, like the military, for example. Everyone has to make their own individual path and define their own success.”