Editorial: Recognize student debt’s real toll on campus

(Illustration by Raka Sarkar | Senior Staff Illustrator)

With grades, a fluctuating social life and life after graduation all weighing heavily on our collective conscience, any college student can tell you they’re no stranger to stress.

And according to research released recently by collegiate contracting giant Sodexo, students in the United States have another concern even more worrisome than these — student debt. According to the study — which surveyed undergraduates at universities in the United States, the U.K., China and a few other countries — American students cited financing their education as a significant worry more often than students in any other country.

Among the 502 Chinese students who participated, 81 percent said they would be able to afford a higher education without any assistance from their educational institutes. In America, that number hovered much lower — only 42 percent would be able to afford college without scholarships and other financial aid.

Of course, this comes as little surprise to American undergraduate students. Here at Pitt, students have staged repeated demonstrations to voice their opposition to increases in the cost of a college education. But if you were to listen only to our society’s leadership, you might have no idea that rising costs were such a significant problem in the United States.

At a town hall two weeks ago, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., turned a question about how to approach the student loan debt problem into an answer about “school choice” and privatization of public education. Toomey’s voting record in the Senate is equally denialist about the cost problem in higher education — in 2013, the senator voted against a bill that would have reduced interest rates on federal loans for undergraduates.

Like students, the Pitt administration also seems concerned about potential rising cost. Pitt promoted a campaign last week called “With Pitt, PA Wins,” with Chancellor Patrick Gallagher tweeting in support of “reminding state lawmakers of Pitt’s immeasurable value to PA.” Gallagher also co-authored an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week with the same theme.

The context of this reminder is the current dispute in the commonwealth’s legislature over Pennsylvania’s spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year. The current uncertainty of the state budget could jeopardize Pitt’s funding from Pennsylvania.

A state funding interruption would result in higher tuition — hurting students much more than it would higher management. And given how bad the state of undergraduate student finances already is, it could hurt a lot.

In order to face both the menace of budget cuts from the Commonwealth and the ever-increasing pressure of financial demands on students, universities like Pitt should focus on the well-being of the students they currently educate just as much as they focus on recruiting more students. In an era when publicly funded universities are spending more and more on on-campus construction in order to compete for students, administrators should re-focus on serving the students they already have by controlling costs.

Tuition increases passed at Pitt by the Board of Trustees over the summer accompanied a 4.5 percent operating budget and a more than doubling of the University’s capital budget for new construction.

Students will always be willing to put up with second-rate facilities. There’s a real crisis in student loan debt today, and the way to solve that at Pitt is to recognize students’ financial woes, not simply to build more and more.

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