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Columbia undergraduates have been taking out smaller federal loans every year for the past five years, but some say the University still isn't doing enough to keep its students out of debt. According to Dean of Financial Aid Laurie Schaffler, federal loan debt incurred by Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science students has been cut nearly in half during that time. In 2007, graduating CC and SEAS students had an average debt load of $17,275 from Stafford Loans and Federal Perkins Loans, but by this year, average indebtedness was down to $8,886. The decrease has come while debt numbers rise nationally. According to a report published by the Project on Student Debt, 2010 university graduates around the country left school with an average federal loan debt of $25,250, a 5 percent increase from the previous year. Schaffler attributed much of the debt decrease at Columbia to financial aid enhancements implemented in 2008. That year, Columbia moved to a no-loan policy for CC and SEAS financial aid­—replacing University-supplied loans with grants—and eliminated tuition and other expenses for students with family incomes below $60,000 per year. "I think we have a very, very robust financial aid policy, and we do a lot to help students and families of need," Schaffler said. "I think it's a good financial aid policy, and I'm glad we have it." The story is a bit different at Barnard, where, according to Project on Student Debt figures, the average federal loan debt of students graduating in 2010 was $14,617. This number has been decreasing slightly, from $14,706 in 2009 and $15,084 in 2008. Barnard's director of financial aid, Nanette DiLauro, said Barnard has successfully brought the debt figure well below the national average. "Our average student loan debt is low because Barnard is vigilant about helping students and their families with financial decisions that make sense in the short and long term," DiLauro said. "In fact, we are very proud of our track record in assisting students." But some Columbia and Barnard students said they still feel burdened by unmanageable debt loads. Colette McIntyre, BC '12, said that even though her "financial aid package, and its growing student and parent contribution, shouldn't make" her panic, it does. "I shouldn't feel guilty when my mother says we'll 'make it work,'" McIntyre said. "I shouldn't feel so anxious when a teacher hands out the syllabus knowing full well I won't be able to afford all of these books, books I want to read and learn about." Compare, contrast Columbia ranks relatively well compared to its peers when it comes to student debt. According to Project on Student Debt figures for 2010 graduates, Princeton students graduated with an average of $5,225 in federal loan debt, while Harvard and Yale graduates had average debt loads of around $10,000. University of Chicago graduates, though, ended up with about $22,000 in average debt, and for New York University students, average debt was more than $41,000. Barnard's debt numbers, too, are on par with or better than those of its peer schools. Bryn Mawr and Smith graduates in 2010 had more than $20,000 in debt on average, and Vassar graduates were more than $18,000 in debt on average. Wellesley's graduates fared better than Barnard's, averaging only about $12,500 in debt. Frustration about the cost of a Barnard education boiled over this semester, when the college announced that part-time students would have to start paying full-time tuition. Rachel Ferrari, BC '13 and Student Government Association vice president, is a member of the Enrollment Policy Task Force that Barnard students formed to gather opinions on the policy change. Most of the 186 students the task force surveyed "reacted negatively to the new policy," according to Ferrari. "Overwhelmingly they say it has a negative effect on the community," she said. DiLauro stressed that Barnard's tuition policy has not changed­—in the past, she said, Barnard had been "generous about making exceptions" to a rule that part-time students must pay full-time tuition—but she said that any students the new enforcement impacts will have the additional expenses factored into their overall financial aid packages. Not the whole story Not all student loan debt is accounted for in the Columbia or Project on Student Debt figures. These numbers only take into account debt that students incur from federal loans—loans that students get from private lenders are not included. Neither are federal PLUS loans that some parents take out. The Columbia debt figures also do not include debt for students at the School of General Studies, which Schaffler said is higher than debt for CC and SEAS students because GS does not have a full-need financial aid policy. According to GS University Senator Jose Robledo, most aid at GS is merit-based. The question for GS, Robledo said, is how to "get the student who really deserves to be here to not have such a burden." "The only way GS can figure out how to do that is through a merit base because it's hard to ask a GS student to say 'hey let me see your parent's income taxes,'" Robledo said. SIPA professor Claudia Dreifus, who recently co-authored the book, "Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It," noted that for lower-middle class and working classes students, taking out large loans is often the only way to pay for school. Taking out loans wasn't "such a big deal," when tuition was lower, she said. But since 2006-2007, Columbia tuition has increased from $44,817 to $56,310, and Barnard tuition has increased from $41,802 to $53,496. "There is no other way for 18-year-olds to get so much money," Dreifus said. "In recent years, schools have always relied on this idea that families will always pay." Debt burdens Even though CC, SEAS, and Barnard are doing well compared to some peer schools, for many students, the debt burdens here are still problematic. Sarah Andebrhan, CC '14, said that while it is "fortunate" that Columbia still has a generous financial aid policy in a touch economy, sometimes the University can't do enough. "In the situations where the school is having trouble, it is hard to help the students, so I imagine them having to take out more loans. And it is ridiculous," Andebrhan said. Ferrari said it's inappropriate that tuition has risen so much in recent years, particularly because it has caused many students to fall into debt. For students from middle-class families, that debt is "a scary thing to leave with ... a real nosedive into adulthood," she said. "I don't believe that institutions are doing their job if students are leaving without really being able to afford the education they had," Ferrari added. Matthew Reed, the program director for Project on Student Debt, said that graduating with debt "affects life decisions like whether or not to go to graduate school, what career to enter, whether or when to buy a home and start a family." "There is also a concern that perspective students may be deterred from going to college, may not go or apply to a variety of colleges, particularly if they don't have good information of the actual cost they will pay at different schools," he said. Some students are satisfied with the financial aid situation at Columbia. Tom Miner, SEAS '12, said he's heard only good things about aid at Columbia. "I hear that financial aid here is amazing and that doesn't sound like that much to me, to be that much debt," he said, referring to the debt numbers from peer institutions that are comparable to Columbia's. Schaffler emphasized that "average indebtedness across Columbia for undergraduates is relatively low." She said she understands, though, that Columbia's current policies can't guarantee that students won't have to take out loans, noting that Columbia sometimes processes loans for families. "What ends up happening for some students is that they might have to borrow because they can't earn all the money over the summer that we thought they could earn, or the parents might be in a position where they don't have enough money to help the students pay for some expenses," she said. 'The best investment' Barnard economics professor Randall Reback, an expert in higher education policy, is less pessimistic than some about the effects of rising debt levels among college students. Economists have found that while students attending expensive schools like Columbia often graduate with a lot of debt, those students are likely to "have more resources spent on them," due to their schools' large endowments and high spending levels. "We shouldn't assume that a student is getting a bad deal because a student is leaving with a lot of debt," he said. Still, Reback said that in a tough job market, the benefits of going to an expensive school are less clear if you are leaving with high levels of debt. Schaffler said she urges students not to borrow "more than you really, really need," and to be prepared to pay back their loans after graduation. "Often students don't even know where they've borrowed, how much they've borrowed, and it doesn't become a reality until after they graduated," she said. "And suddenly they got something from a lender saying you owe this money every month for the next ten years, and they say 'Oh my gosh, I had no idea this was going to happen.'" Dreifus believes that incoming college students need to be savvier consumers. She said that even though "College Board says that student debt is the best investment you can make," this might not be true. "There are a lot of factors in life that you can't count on. You can't count on a particular recession. You can't count on staying in good health—even a young person can come down with a serious illness or suffer an accident. That is why it's good not to start off your life in debt," she said. "If consumers hold back they [colleges] will have to reevaluate their spending." Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Laurie Schaffler's title, which is "Dean of Financial Aid."

Financial Aid debt burden