Recently, I delivered a class for adults on strategies to pay for college.  During the allotted 30 minutes for the session the national total student debt was growing at the research-estimated rate of $2,700 a second which means that during the relatively short duration of the class, the national student loan total increased by $4,860,000! That ongoing toll is discouraging enough but it does not include other debts that fly below the radar such as borrowing by parents sometimes using home equity as collateral, raiding retirement funds and other nest-eggs to cover the growing cost of college.  Worse yet is the tragic reality that we are losing some of our best and brightest students at the altar of the seemingly insurmountable specter of college costs.  One estimate puts that annual figure at a half million, college-ready students. There are many approaches to dealing with this 21st century reality but they would all require some form of Congressional participation and that is not likely in the foreseeable future.  But what we can do is to limit the damage by putting a cap on the length of time it takes to attain a college degree.

In a recent major study of American colleges (Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2015), students were tracked beginning with the fall of 2009. By the spring of 2015 (6 years later!) only 53% had received a degree.  The New York Times reported in the April 2017 edition of its educational supplement that the nationwide four-year graduation rate is a paltry 43%.  In many cases this was a function of the students’ failure to do the work or their opting for part-time status because of cost considerations.  But all too frequently delays were caused by poor enrollment management by the often cash-strapped colleges which resulted in unavailable required classes needed to complete majors and prerequisites in a timely fashion.  In other instances, colleges knowingly admitted unqualified students as a simple business proposition.  Failing students are still required to pay the usual college costs.  It’s higher education’s version of sub-prime mortgages.  A similar characterization appeared in the April 10 edition of a front-page story in the Times about the widespread abuses that occur every minute of every day in the sketchy student loan marketplace.

What is the actual cost of college “overtime”?  The students or parents still have to pay for it but there is more.  If a student were not languishing in college for an extra year or two, he/she would likely be going on to grad school or beginning a career making anywhere between $30,000 and $50,000 or so.  These “opportunity costs” when folded into the college-cost mix makes that extra year very expensive at any enrollment price.  But there are still more implications….

The federal financial aid system was built and funded on the supposition that college was a four-year commitment.  When it takes longer and in the absence of massively greater funding levels by the federal government that means there will be fewer financial aid dollars available to those students who complete college in regulation time.  This shortfall is manifested in “gapping” the aid to families, the practice of awarding families less need-based aid than their income and wealth might require under the federal needs analysis methodology.  For instance, if we judged a family’s financial situation based on an award from a college, a family making $45,000 a year might receive an award that would be more appropriate for a family income of $75,000 to $100,000.  There are no penalties for colleges that engage in such widespread practices.  And those shortfalls are almost always bridged with more student and parent loans from both the public and private sectors.

Then, of course, there are the parents who are already at risk because of the unreliable and under-funded financial aid system.  To add another year or two to their burden will further deplete their retirement savings and will create additional “down-the-road” pressure on taxpayers to provide sufficient funds to underwrite those parents’ retirement years or to simply write them off as non-contributors to the general economy in their retirement (typically 20-30 years) because they have been needlessly impoverished by a shamefully under-funded and poorly supervised system of college financial aid and the addition of another year or two of unanticipated  college costs.  According to The New York Times (09/06/16) there is an “estimated $6.5 trillion gap currently existing in actual retirement savings nationwide and what they will need”.  For starters, what is required is a way to first contain this man-made runaway, dangerous fire storm called student and parent college loans and adopt a program whose centerpiece is a simple yet binding voluntary guarantee of a degree in four years by colleges.

Under the current administration, the carnage is gaining further momentum.  The U.S. Department of Education headed by the relatively clueless Betsy DeVos has consented to allow lenders of student loans to increase the interest rate on students who may be in default of their loans to a usurious 16%.  Philosophically, that marks a return to the debtors’ prison approach.  If they couldn’t pay off a loan at 4 or 5%, what sense does it make to triple the interest?  When we as a nation should be mitigating the impact of excessive student loans, we are fanning the flames of a very dangerous conflagration. Enter 4&Out.

4&out was born on Main Street in a small coastal town in California.  It is a grass-roots effort to contain this growing, out-of-control student-loan and college-cost wild fire.  In early 2016, a group of educators, social entrepreneurs and concerned citizens joined hands to craft a project sponsored by a 501(c)(3) non-profit company to identify and work with colleges who are willing to guarantee a four-year degree in four years or provide a fifth and even a sixth year free of charge.  The guarantee is short and easily understood with simple, clear requirements for both the colleges and the students as a part of the guarantee agreement.  The benefits to both parties are obvious and unambiguous.  There are no costs to the families or anyone for membership in 4&Out and a very small per-pupil based fee for a college to be listed as a 4&out college.

The project which will debut nationally in late August or early September 2017 has launched a place-holder web site at that not only provides students, parents, guidance personnel and colleges with a brief overview of the project and a flavor for what lies ahead but a survey that the founders would like everyone to complete to help the 4&out staff create a site that is most useful to any subscribing entity. 4&out is a bottom-up not a top-down effort.  It will reflect the choices of the people it serves not just the economic goals of the providers of the site.

None of us can create a climate of change acting alone but by joining together in a chorus numbering in the millions, our colleges will take notice. By completing the survey you will add another important voice to a growing and compelling demand for better, more efficient paths to a four-year degree.  There are no losers…only winners in this effort as articulated on the 4&Out website.

In any democracy, the voice of the people is always the deciding factor in any important decisions affecting the course of history.  For those of us who fully appreciate the value of higher education to the progress of humanity and the quality of our lives, 4&Out is one of those rare game changers that will compel policy makers at all levels to seriously adapt to a new imperative, one demanded by people of every background and political stripe.  Together we, all of us acting as one voice, can affect the focus of the discussion and the conditions that define the higher education landscape in the years ahead.

Visit the site and, above all, take a moment to complete the survey.  It is about you. People in positions to make policy aren’t moved by silence but they have a way of stirring when there is a loud, clear outcry by millions of ordinary citizens seeking change.  In this case, we don’t need government and its toxicity. This is about a college-by-college voluntary decision to guarantee that whatever it costs it will be over a four year period, not an open-ended financial drain that is suggested by the Student Clearinghouse study cited earlier.

The bottom line is this:  Our colleges are this nation’s best hope for a promising future in an increasingly competitive world.  Everyone is important but it is our colleges that provide tomorrow’s talent to cure diseases, educate future generations, keep us secure through cutting-edge military advances, ensure safer foods and products and protect us from the ravages of pollution and its effects on the air we breathe and the water we drink.  America’s colleges are and always have been the crown jewels in this land of opportunity.  But that community is at risk with rising costs and an absurd, largely unenforced system of financial aid.  While we continue to grapple with the need to create a new financial aid model, we must first contain the immediate threat created by among other factors, a needlessly expensive and an all-too-often inefficient road to a four-year degree.

By registering your concern through the simple act of taking a few minutes to complete the survey on you will help to build a growing constituency that cannot be ignored and in doing so you and all of us can begin to create a deep and lasting footprint for us, our children, our colleges and the nation we so deeply treasure.

Note:  If you believe in the importance of this initiative, please tell your family and friends to visit and take the survey.  If you are a school or independent counselor and you think that as a function of due diligence for your clients it is a sound idea to direct them to the listing of 4&Out member colleges beginning this fall, your identifying your position as a counselor on the survey will carry an extra level of urgency to the project, one that will not become lost on our college community across the nation.  Our school-based and independent college counselors are perhaps the most influential group of all.  It is time for us all to stop being silent, apparently willing victims of an utterly dysfunctional, arcane college funding system.




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