More reflections on the rising student debt: A Latina Christian perspective

Recently I wrote a blog about student debt, and I received a comment that is worth exploring: “An essential piece of this puzzle relates to why the cost of higher education has escalated so dramatically, so as to make student debt almost unavoidable.  As people who derive income from higher education, there’s a conscience factor for you and for me.”

There are at least two sides to this conversation: 1) the cost of education; 2) the culture of “immediate satisfaction and I deserve” that is frequently sustained by loans.  I will explore the first issue here, and the second one on a subsequent blog.

A recent report by the American Institutes for Research highlights that tuition has increased almost 160% since 1990 (http://www.air.org/sites/default/files/downloads/report/DeltaCostAIR-Labor-Expensive-Higher-Education-Staffing-Brief-Feb2014.pdf).  While this report concentrates on labor issues, it also discusses reasons for the increase in higher education costs:

  • Growth in non-instructional positions such as administrators and professionals (business/financial analysts, computer administrators, athletic staff, and health workers).
  • Growth in the area of non-instructional student services (including buildings).
  • Increased benefits costs.
  • Decline in state/institutional subsidies.

The same report describes that as administrative and professional positions grew, the number of full time faculty declined.  So who is teaching?  The tendency has been to increase the part-time faculty (including graduate assistants).  This produces savings because a part-time professor makes an average of $2,700.00 per course which represents $21,600.00 for eight courses a year and no benefits.

Another source of interesting data is a Texas website that reports state employees’ salaries (http://www.texastribune.org/library/data/government-employee-salaries/). The president of one of the major state universities makes $613,612.00 a year.  Of course, being a university president carries many responsibilities (the Forbes list of the nine toughest leadership roles locates this position in second place http://www.forbes.com/sites/robasghar/2014/02/25/ranking-the-9-toughest-leadership-roles/), but this university president makes more than President Obama who earns $400,000.00.  Now the one who makes the most is the head football coach with $5,266,667.00.

Even though tuition may not be the major source of a school’s revenue, it is one nonetheless.  Thus, as costs increase, tuition/fees keep increasing too, pushing families/students to depend more on loans.

This information led me to reflect on issues of justice, conscience, and priorities in education. While I recognized that the problem is complex, I thought also about the discipline of simplicity and Richard Foster’s words: “Courageously, we need to articulate new, more human ways to live.”  So, as a Christian educator, I ask: Is it possible to courageously articulate new, more human ways to educate? Is it possible to provide an excellent, cost-efficient, ethical education that favors society’s common good?

As the gap between the rich and the poor increases, it becomes a justice issue: How can educational institutions help the most disadvantaged to obtain a solid education without chaining them to debt?  Additionally, it becomes a matter of conscience as the educational system is mistreating some faculty.  These part-time faculty members are overworked, yet they are starving (for more on this, see: http://www.post-gazette.com/Op-Ed/2013/09/18/Death-of-an-adjunct/stories/201309180224#ixzz2fous3xzs).  So how in good conscience can I recommend that my students/mentees pursue academic careers, when I know that they will most likely graduate with significant debt, and with slim possibilities of finding a faculty position with a decent salary?  As both students and faculty are suffering under the current unjust educational system, I believe that simplicity in education can prevent unnecessary expenses in order to create excellent educational environments/opportunities/experiences that are just for all.

Regarding priorities, simplicity calls us to ask: are all the services that an institution offers essential to the educational task?  I co-direct the Latina Leadership Institute, and as we make decisions the leading questions are: Is this something that the student can get only here?  How can we form partnerships to reduce costs but still offer an excellent product?  Can someone else provide this particular knowledge/service for the student? If this is feasible, we redirect the student to that source of knowledge/experience, and concentrate on the uniqueness of our program.

The more that we can provide an excellent education with simplicity, the more that costs will decrease, and the more that educational benefits will become available at all levels.  I believe the discipline of simplicity offers hope, too, to individual students/families.  This will be the subject of my next blog.

Nora Lozano

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Nora O. Lozano is professor of theological studies at Baptist University of the Américas in San Antonio, Texas, and co-founder and co-director of the Latina Leadership Institute. She is also a member of the BWA Commission on Doctrine and Church Unity.

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