Many AU students, myself included, have long been worried about the rising cost of attending American University.
Which is why I was quite disturbed when I read an article in The Eagle last fall indicating that the Class of 2010 graduated with the highest average student debt of all D.C. colleges.
But I was particularly incensed when, three weeks later, a letter to the editor written by Financial Aid Director Brian Lee Sang and Vice Provost Sharon Alston was published, claiming to set the record straight on this issue.
In their letter, Lee Sang and Alston broke down the percentages of how many students received some form of financial aid, how many students took out loans, etc. They sought to reassure us that fewer than 65 percent of students (the national average) took out loans, and that of those who borrowed federal loans, the average indebtedness was only $21,146, rather than the $36,206 originally reported.
But I fail to see how this argument changes the fact that, compared to the other six four-year universities in the District, our overall student debt average remains the highest. And this is based on data for the Class of 2010. I would not be surprised if realistically, the data for the Class of 2015 proves significantly more drastic as the poor economy and more-recent increases in tuition and fees gets factored into the student debt calculations.
Furthermore, their letter exploits the biggest cop-out maneuver in the financial aid playbook: writing off students who did not demonstrate financial need.
The reality is that “demonstrated need” is a formulaic calculation generated by FAFSA that rarely reflects realistic need. Demonstrated need does not reflect the cost of living in a student’s hometown or the volatility of the occupation(s) of a student’s parents.
My financial aid from AU includes $7,500 each year in federal student loans. My family then has to take out an additional $19,000 each year in federal PLUS loans just to meet their “expected family contribution.” That adds up to $30,000 for me and $76,000 for my family in debt accrued over my undergraduate tenure at AU.
I am fortunate to have received a substantial merit scholarship that covers the rest of my demonstrated need — a luxury that many AU students do not enjoy.
Nevertheless, I still feel every day as though my ability and my family’s ability to afford an AU education are hanging by a thread. And I am certain that there are other students in far more dire straits than I am.
It is insulting for administrators to dismiss students who borrow additional loans as not counting towards the student debt problem just because their demonstrated need was met. Clearly, if their actual need had been met, they wouldn’t need to take out any loans at all.
Whether it’s to a private agency or the federal government, student debt is student debt. And whether the average is $20,000 or $35,000, these debt levels are an unconscionable burden on our futures.
There’s an old Scottish quote about those who “use statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts — for support rather than for illumination.”
We need AU’s administrators to stop making excuses about this problem just so they can make their department look better in the limelight. We need them to acknowledge that there is a problem. Then, we can work together with them to try and find ways to solve it.
Douglas Bell is a junior in the School of Communication.