Lots of students figure out ways to graduate college with minimal debt. We’re not saying it’s easy. But the media should tell the stories of possibility, not just the anecdotes about overwhelming debt.
ELENA Calderon is a first-generation college student who graduated from Eastern Washington University with two degrees and without debt.
This isn’t the story you’re used to reading about. The media are full of horrifying anecdotes, highlighting an unemployed art major who left college owing $100,000. State and federal legislators cite student debt as a national calamity. The standard narrative is negative: As a result, many students, rather than being excited for the college journey that lies ahead, focus on the debt they fear will overwhelm them.
Of course, the college and university experience used to be more affordable. Public universities and community colleges were created by states committed to having a college-educated populace. Alumni here in Washington talk about how, 30 years ago, they could save up for the next year of college by working a summer job.
The funding model changed. For more than a decade, the cost of higher education has been shifting from the state to the student.
Nonetheless, college is still one of the best investments you can make. Not only is there a significant gap between the lifetime earnings of college and high-school graduates, but college graduates are often physically and emotionally — as well as financially — healthier than individuals with only a high-school diploma.
And the hype about horrendous debt is often that — hype. Some of the terrifying data the media use include debt incurred by students in post-baccalaureate programs and students attending private and for-profit universities. Undergraduates at public comprehensive universities have a different story. Moreover, Washington is labeled a “low-debt state” by the Institute for College Access and Success — average college debt in our state is $24,600.
Cost of attendance at Eastern Washington University is among the lowest of Washington’s state universities. Almost half of EWU students graduate with no debt.
Attending college is still more expensive than we’d like, but we work hard to keep students and their families informed about grant and scholarship opportunities, as well as about money management.
Because Calderon, who co-wrote this Op-Ed, is undocumented, she was ineligible for financial aid. However, she learned about alternatives: scholarships from her hometown, EWU scholarships, part-time jobs.
As an undergraduate, Calderon participated in financial-management classes. She learned the importance of relationships with professors and the process for requesting letters of recommendation and for maintaining an active résumé.
Students perceive scholarship applications as time-consuming. But it’s time well spent. The hours Calderon spent on applying for scholarships helped her graduate debt-free.
During her senior year of college, Calderon was eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and received a work permit. While working toward her master’s degree, she applied for assistantships that provided tuition waivers as well as stipends. To further alleviate financial burdens, Calderon had a part-time job working with an immigration lawyer in Spokane.
Thousands of students figure out ways to graduate with minimal debt. We’re not saying it’s easy. No one should underestimate the challenges students and their families face.
But the media should tell the stories of possibility, not just the anecdotes about overwhelming debt. Prospective students can be so daunted by the specter of debt that they don’t even consider applying to college. That is a tragedy for them and for our communities.
Most of us remember stories more than we remember data points. So when you’re thinking about student debt, think about Elena Calderon.
And let’s not use horror stories to block students’ path to success.