Student Debt and the $16 Muffin

Dental surgeons must have never had it so good. Given the number of teeth gnashed over college student debt levels in today’s news media, one only hopes today’s top newspaper journalists have decent dental plans. “The college debt crisis is even worse than you think” read the Boston Globe last week. Student loan debt has been type-cast as “bonkers”, a “time-bomb”, a “nightmare”. At the same time it’s blamed for both crippling and gouging college students. It’s even akin to indentured servitude. It ain’t easy being student debt these days. These articles hone in on what is not an insignificant issue. College debt is climbing and there are a healthy number of students who truly are in over their heads. But not everyone. Not even a majority.

About five years ago the country collectively gasped in horror over numerous media reports citing a Justice Department report that apparently uncovered the federal government spending a whopping $16 a piece on breakfast muffins. The body politic seethed with rage. Senator Chuck Grassley called for heads to “roll.” Bill O’Reilly was predictably terror stricken with the news. But after all the muffin crumbles settled, including a formal 151 page investigative report from the Inspector General, it turned out that the $16 wasn’t for just muffins but rather included “other food and beverage items, such as coffee, tea, and fruit, were included in the charged amount.” (Stephen Colbert smartly noted that those 151 pages detailing the exhaustive governmental efforts to review all of this “proved that the federal government wasted no money on those muffins.”)

Student debt has become the muffin-gate of higher education and this sensationalism needs to be tempered with a strong shot of reality. What’s that reality? We can start with a wonderfully named piece from the Hamilton Place Strategies group entitled, “The Plural Of Anecdote Is Data (Except For Student Debt)” Here, this firm writes, “A closer look at some of the particulars around college financing reveals more nuance than overall media coverage has indicated. While tuition has consistently gone up, the net price actually paid has been much flatter as universities offer more tuition assistance and discounts to entice attendance. And while the average amount of debt incurred has been increasing over time, the increase in monthly payments is typically manageable.”

Some are even suggesting that the levels of student debt are actually dragging down the nation’s economy as students with debt are unable to afford to buy homes and automobiles. Susan Dynarski, a faculty member at the University of Michigan and widely recognized as one of the leading experts in higher education financing, college costs, and access issues writes for the Brookings Institution that this simply is not the case. Multiple other studies have supported this finding.  It’s worth noting a few of the major newspaper willing to dig into the nuances of the issue. The Wall Street Journal recently cited a federal reserve bank of Cleveland report which found that the typical student borrower between the ages 20 and 30 pays $203 a month toward student debt. And seventy five percent of borrowers pay no more than $400 a month.

At Michigan Technological University, where I work, last year’s average debt of those graduating with a bachelor’s degree was $36,041. The national average was about $35,000 (note the snarky headline for this article where I found this average). And while Michigan Tech is a bit over the national average, the ability of its graduates to pay down that debt far exceeds the national average.

Collegemeasures.org found that a typical Michigan Tech graduates expends 3.5% of their earnings on college debt repayment. That’s ranked in the top three percent in the country for lowest ratio of debt payment to earnings. What more, that is one percentage point less than the state of Michigan income tax rate of 4.75%. Michigan Tech graduates working in Michigan are paying a larger proportion of their income to the state (who doesn’t exactly have the best track record in providing its support to help students earn their degrees) than they do to pay back their student debt.

Those stories go mostly untold. The media needs to make money. And what bleeds leads. Perhaps the most damning evidence of sensationalism is this finding, again from the Hamilton Place Strategies. After reviewing 100 articles on college debt for 2012 graduates over a three month period, HPS found that the average level of student debt reported in news coverage was $85,400. What was the actual national average for student level debt in 2012? $29,400.

blog-june 2016

And then there is the $1.2 trillion dollars in student debt. The biggest muffin in all the land. It’s the collective sum of all student debt in the country. But scratch just a millimeter beneath the surface of this ubiquitously reported stat and one begins to see a different picture. Forty percent of that 1.2 trillion dollar sum goes towards graduate degrees for people pursuing, for instance, a medical or law degrees. And props to the NYT’s and again, Susan Dynarski, who found that, “The huge run-up in loans and the subsequent spike in defaults have not been driven by $100,000 debts incurred by students at expensive private colleges like N.Y.U. They are driven by $8,000 loans at for-profit colleges and, to a lesser extent, community colleges.”

If we are going to collectively address issues of access, student success, and college financing, we need to start from a place of truth and accuracy. Demonizing higher education using points of fact that are, in fact, without fact muddy the waters and will hold students, who might otherwise benefit from a college education, back from pursuing that education. In today’s knowledge-based economy, we simply can’t afford to have students who would like to pursue an education, decide not to based on incomplete and incorrect assumptions about higher education financing.

Jason Delisle sums it up best when he remarked, “When somebody says student debt is killing the economy, replace ‘student debt’ with ‘higher education’ and see if the sentence still makes sense.”  If there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, let it be over research questions and lab reports in route to a college degree and high paying job, not over undue $16 muffin scented panic regarding student debt.


Career Competencies Maximize a Student’s Value

It is estimated that the Class of 2016 will graduate with an average of $37,172 in student loans. Over 43 million Americans own student loan debt. The key to securing a good paying job after graduation to pay off this debt is to effectively communicate the value you can provide a company. But what values are companies looking for?

The National Association of Colleges and Employers have identified the seven key career competencies that employers are seeking in their top candidates. The competencies include:

  1. Critical Thinking/Problem Solving
  2. Oral/Written Communications
  3. Teamwork/Collaboration
  4. Information Technology
  5. Leadership
  6. Professional/Work Ethic
  7. Career Management

Colleges and universities across America have created Career Services departments to help students identify their talents that relate to what employers are seeking. These professionals then help students communicate this unique set of skills through resumes, e-portfolios, and personal interviews. Recruiters will tell you it takes six seconds for them to scan a resume and decide if they want to interview the candidate. Your resume has six seconds to communicate your many unique talents. It is vital that resumes are structured to tell your story in a concise, engaging, and comprehensive professional fashion.

Research suggests that those entering the workforce now will end up changing jobs every 4 to 6 years. It will not be uncommon for graduates to experience a minimum of 5 different careers in their lifetime. The career skills they use to secure their first job will be used multiple times throughout their careers and will be the determining factor on the level of compensation they receive. As students begin their collegiate experience they must engage with their career services offices on campus as soon as they arrive on campus. The skills they acquire from these professionals will serve them for a lifetime by maximizing the value of their education and the unique talents they acquire.


Residential colleges and universities are ceding the debate with our silence

If there is one thing traditional colleges and universities have failed at it is helping to craft the social narrative about their contribution to the general welfare of society.  It’s not that we’ve done anything wrong as much as we’ve not done anything at all.  Media outlets have thus filled this nothing-at-all-space with almost gleeful stories about the coming higher education disruption bubble.  There is no doubt that there is room for improvement, but American higher education is ceding debate without a fight. Continue reading


Everything I need to know about recruitment, I learned at a flea market

In my past life, I owned and operated a flea market. I had a booth of treasures, sold popcorn and ice cream, performed magic tricks, and met a lot of interesting people. Maybe I didn’t learn everything about recruitment during this time, but looking back, there are a lot of skills applicable to undergraduate recruitment.

Be honest

Whether you’re selling leaky buckets or repaired inflatable swim toys, to the right person, there’s value in these items. Being honest goes a long way. It’s the same with higher education. Michigan Tech is far away, snowy for most of the time students are on campus, it’s hard, and it’s expensive. Be honest and show the value in what most see as hurdles. “We get a lot of snow and our students love that they get to ski every day, or try something new like snowshoeing.” Tell a story. Help them picture themselves at your institution. Continue reading


Best Visit Ever

“Thank you – Best Visit Ever” was the subject line in an email I recently received from a parent. The mother went on to write that the son they visited Michigan Tech with is the youngest of four children, and as such they had attended over a dozen campus visits at other colleges in multiple states. “We were so impressed with so many things.”

She called out the fact that I personally drove them in a van for our upper campus tour (we had overflow that day and it was all hands on deck). Their student tour guides were friendly and informed. At lunch in the residence halls, a staff member overheard her comment about her dietary restrictions and went “above and beyond” to explain the options available for her in the dining hall. “And if this was not enough, our ONE ON ONE (!!) department visit [with faculty] was amazing!” Continue reading


Michigan Tech Launched a Brand Today

I’m fascinated by brands. Not the cowboy kind, but the kind you see on a polo at a conference. The business kind. The kind that’s become a buzzword in our consumer world.

There are many definitions of brand, and if you found 10 brand experts and stuck them in a room together, odds are even they couldn’t agree on what exactly is a brand? But certainly no one would underestimate the power of a brand. And not a single person would argue a brand isn’t necessary.

A brand is vital. Continue reading


An Investment Worth Making

Attending college anywhere is a big decision and a big investment for students and their families. With cost of attendance being over $13,000 for Michigan residents and over $29,000 for non-Michigan residents, attending college at Michigan Technological University is a very significant decision and investment.

Like any investment, it would not be recommended that you just throw your money in a random fund and hope for the best. College can be treated the same way, in that you should be able to research the school and its outcomes to better estimate your return on investment. According to payscale.com, the average starting salary for those graduating from Michigan Tech is $62,800, the seventh highest in the nation among public universities. The Princeton Review also listed Michigan Tech in its 2016 book, “Colleges That Pay You Back.” Michigan Tech, which was among 200 schools listed in the book, was evaluated based on academics, cost, financial aid, graduation rates, student debt, alumni salaries, and job satisfaction. Continue reading


Service Innovation

An August 2015 Business Insider article about the 50 best colleges in America indicated that “when it comes to assessing the value of a college, the most important factor to consider is how much that school helps students succeed in life.” According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, help is defined as “to do something that makes it easier for someone to do a job, to deal with a problem, etc.: to aid or assist someone.” As an institution of higher learning we have the great reward every day to aid and be of service to our customers, the students. It requires everyone to be a team player and the “behind-the-scenes” work/preparation is just as critical as the event and/or time in the classroom. Many of the courses on college campuses incorporate an element of teamwork or cooperative learning. The same should hold true at the institution, in fact with have a responsibility to model the way before them. The age-old phrase “do as I say and not as I do” is out the window. If students see teamwork and service incorporated within our organization they can’t deny its effectiveness. Continue reading


More on Michigan Tech and Social Mobility

A survey released earlier this year from insurance firm Haven Life and research organization, YouGov cited that only about 13% of Americans believe that today’s children will be better off financially than they were when their career reached its peak.

There is plenty of evidence to point to which helps substantiate this worry. However, there are outliners. Michigan Tech is one of those outliners. The average household income of Michigan Tech freshmen this fall was about $89,000. Payscale.com surveying indicates that today, Michigan Tech alums at mid-career currently make $99,900. So it’s reasonable to conclude that a Michigan Tech education enables social mobility. Continue reading


STEM and social mobility: Not who you know, but what you know

One of the issues in this upcoming presidential election is that of the shrinking middle class. The Pew Charitable Trusts has found that the middle class has shrunk in every single state between the years of 2000 and 2013. In Michigan, the study found that the median income shrank from inflation adjusted $61,551 in 2001 to $48,273 in 2013.

One can expect to hear common drumbeats from the presidential contenders; from fortifying the minimum wage to decreasing payroll taxes have predictably already been employed in stump speeches. In my view what we don’t hear enough of is the role that a STEM-based education can play in social mobility. Continue reading