Board of Trustees

Barron looks at ways to help ease Penn State student debt

CDT photo

Penn State President Eric Barron asked Friday if the university can find $20 million to $30 million to help students from low-income families concentrate more on their studies and less on working to afford an education.

Referring to the money as a “Penn State promise,” Barron said it is an example of what the university can do help students graduate sooner and accumulate less debt.

Access and affordability were the focus of Barron’s first report to the board as president. He stepped into the role as Penn State’s 18th president in May.

The timing of Barron’s presentation, which was heavy on statistics, charts and graphs, came as the board was preparing to pass a $4.6 billion operating budget that includes flat state funding and a 2.99 percent tuition increase for most students at University Park.

“My view is, let’s not think so much about that 3 percent,” Barron said. “Let’s first tackle the problem, which is incredibly significant, and that is the total cost of the degree. What that reflects is timely competition. We can significantly impact the cost of a degree for our students if we can help them graduate more quickly.”

Barron said 66 percent of university students graduate with some debt. That number was the same 10 years ago, but the average amount of debt has jumped from $20,000 then to $35,000 now.

The data shows borrowing increases as students enter their fifth and sixth years. Penn State’s freshman class of 2007-08, for instance, borrowed $23 million alone to complete those years.

And it’s students from the lowest income brackets who fall into trap of extra years. The odds of graduating before a fifth year increase by 6 percent for every $10,000 in family income, according to the presentation.

The most needy students may have to work part-time jobs, and those who spend 20 hours a week doing that have less energy or time to concentrate on academics, meaning it could take longer for them to graduate, Barron said.

Those students are susceptible to attrition, dropping out after a few years, possibly for financial reasons, and racking up debt in the meantime.

“The first step in this particular process is not to get ourselves wrapped around the axle over the $400 (the annual tuition increase for most University Park students),” Barron said. “We need to focus on what the key problems are here. The extent to which attrition and time to degree is correlated with financial need.”

One option Barron suggested is an online summer session at a deep discount, so students can catch up on classes without borrowing.

“Think of it as picking up a semester without debt,” he said.

Another option would be raising a pool of money that could help students work fewer hours to make ends meet and spend that time on classes instead, to they graduate sooner.

Barron said the university is looking more closely to see if students go into those extra years because they are facing financial issues and debt, and whether there are options to help.

“Can we find that $20, $30 million to create a Penn State promise,” he asked.