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The Price of Learning

Sexton In a sort of "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" moment, my 20 year-old daughter, Jessica, a sophomore at New York University, had an interesting exchange last week with John Sexton, the President of the University. She wrote about it on her blog and I asked her to do a version as a guest post for me to post here.

Although this is somewhat off-topic from my normal fare, I thought that Jessica's experience raises some important questions about why we as a society are putting the burden of education on individuals and their families, despite the fact that as a nation, we need our citizens to be more highly educated than ever. If our economic success is dependent on having a highly skilled and educated workforce, then how can saddling people with crippling debt to get more education be good? And what about those who, even with student loans, find that post-secondary learning is completely out of their reach? These are issues we're going to have to figure out how to address, not at individual institutions, but as a society. We need to start by getting the discussion out on the table.


On Thursday (March 27) I attended a roundtable luncheon with NYU President John Sexton and business entrepreneur and NYU Trustee Ronald Blaylock. The primary thread running through the conversation was to recognize what you’re passionate about and seize those passions so you can lead a happy and fulfilling life like Mr. Blaylock; and then, of course, give back to NYU in every way possible (most importantly financially).

A lot of the other students asked questions about Mr. Blaylock’s successful business ventures and his time spent at NYU, but I wanted to get a straight answer out of him about my predicament concerning student loans.

So, I asked him:

I understand that following your passion is important, and I would love to pursue a career in something I love to do; I would also like to take advantage of the unpaid internship opportunities NYU offers its students. However, I’m forced to work 25 hours a week to be able to make enough money to support myself in the city, and the amount of debt I’m incurring continues to grow. What’s your suggestion for being able to follow your passion when financially it might not even be feasible?

Mr. Blaylock responded by saying that he worked as many as three jobs at a time to be able to get to where he is today. (Of course, he went to both Georgetown and NYU on full scholarships, so he really knows little about paying off college loans).

President Sexton looked befuddled. It was clearly something that plagued him, the horrible position NYU puts the middle class in. His answer to me was

Well, for students in positions like yours (Ed. Note: 60% of the NYU student body!), I have to really wonder if you belong at NYU. Is the debt worth being here?

A cruel answer if you consider that most of his speech revolved around pursuing your passion. What if NYU is my passion? Are you telling me that because the university squanders its endowment on buying more NYC real estate and can’t afford to help me pay tuition that I don’t belong here?

I don’t think he meant it in such harsh terms, but it really twisted the knife. The truth is, he doesn’t have an answer, and for the 60% of NYU students whose parents make just enough to be ineligible for need based financial aid, and not enough that they are unable to pay tuition without taking out huge loans, President Sexton admitted he kind of doesn’t care about us.

I understand this is a difficult and tenuous issue. It’s true that NYU does not have the kind of endowment that the Ivies boast. But from a man who seems to relish the idea of pursuing what you love (he put off law school until he was 30 in lieu of helping teach underprivileged students in Brooklyn), it was a highly troubling answer.

Not to mention it hurt my feelings.

At the end of the meeting, the Senior Director of Alumni Relations came up to me and suggested I have a discussion with her about possibly using a recent gift made to the university to help pay for my study abroad experience. That would be an amazing opportunity that I would be unimaginably grateful for, but what about the other 60% of NYU students stuck in my same situation? Who have to work awful work study jobs to pay for housing? Who can’t follow their dreams and nab those incredible internships because they have to make money to help pay for school?

What about them?

President Sexton did come up with two solutions, which may help some kids, but for students like me struggling right now they don't offer much alleviation:

1. They are opening up a campus in Abu Dhabi in 2010; the university secured a deal with the King that those students accepted to NYU whose parents make under $200,000 a year get to go for free, with tuition, room and board paid for, as well as a stipend for traveling; that's well and great, but it's not for another 2 years. Plus you have to go to school in Abu Dhabi

2. He discussed a loan forgiveness program that he is working on in conjunction with newly appointed NY Governor Patterson that would forgive student loans if the student stays in
New York for 10 years. This sounds like a good idea in theory, but in practice, would it really work out? And what about the loans I have now?

I know that most of this is my fault. I didn't have the foresight to understand the nuances and realities that digging myself into so much debt would birth; but at the same time, what 17 year old high school student does? And for his solution to those kids who want to go to NYU desperately and have to borrow thousands of dollars to make it a reality to be: well, maybe you don't belong here... well, that's just a little bit discouraging.

The thing is, I really like President Sexton as a person. He is kind and honest and forthright, and I appreciated that he spoke so candidly about such a complicated issue. But it really just wasn't the answer I wanted to hear. And in truth, it didn't solve anything.


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I would like to repost this in my blog. Is that alright?

I suppose you do have to give due credit for candor, but this sure smacks of elitism to me. And as we're likely to see the labor pool skill requirements continue to escalate, there must be some kind of solution.

Sad thing is that were we to be discussing athletics rather than academics, this likely wouldn't be an issue. Where are the "boosters" with deep pockets to lend a hand to lit majors or gifted math students?

Sure Allison--just with attribution and a link back here. Would love to see what you post, so drop me the link when you do. This is a pretty big issue and generating conversation is what I hope comes out of the post!

Rob, I agree wholeheartedly that it sounds like elitism. And, as you point out, it's about priorities, too, although in NYU's case, athletics doesn't have the same impact you see at other schools.

Sadly, this is a global problem. My daughter, who is exactly the same age as yours, Michelle, is facing the same debt. I'd love to be able to pay her fees but just cant afford it.

The thing that frustrates her even more is that she doesn't know what she wants to do when she leaves uni, so in a way, she sees her arts degree as a 'waste' because it does not give her a professional qualification (like nursing or law). What it will do is give her study and critique skills and life experience but...expensive life experience. She says she could just as easily get life experience working at the local store.

Sarah, it is frustrating to watch them take on so much debt and be discouraged, isn't it? And our kids are the lucky ones who can at least get a college education. There are so many more here who can't afford to do that, even with student loans. It's most definitely a problem.

A very articulate post about a huge problem. I'm an alum of an Ivy that recently announced that students whose families make under a certain amount would be allowed to attend tuition-free. I wish that had been around before I graduated 11 years ago! But I will say that I have been earmarking my piddly alumni fund donations for scholarships for some time now and that I would much rather see the school spend a little more on helping students focus on why they are there at the college -- to learn, to gain critical thinking skills, to have opportunities and exposure to new ideas and connections -- than to add it to the mound of money the endowment has already racked up. It sounds like you have a great head on your shoulders, and I wish you the best at NYU.

Michele and Jessica

An article just published in Brazil ( tell us about 20 millionaires that did not graduated. They are Bill Gates, Michael Dell (Dell), Paul Allen (Microsoft) , Steve Jobs (Apple), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Li Ka-Shing (richest man in Asia) and others. Based on this life truth, an Entrepreunership Institute in Brazil started LIFE SCHOOL, which target is teach what is not taught in school and has a real value in life. Classes start in August 2008 and include experiences from a lot of succeeded Brazilian entrepreuneurs that has no graduation like Luiz Antonio Seabra (Natura´s founder: listed by Forbes as one of Brazilian billionaires), Alair Martins (founder of Grupo Martins, a huge wholesale chain in Brazil) and many others.

I would say to Jessica what I tell my sons and daughter: do not argue with oldfashioned solutions that were produced by our economic and social system. Go for the big opportunities the world is offering to young people nowadays, in this young millenium. Dive into this magnificent new world and you will find your personal answer very soon. And I am sure, it will not come from a banking professional like Blaylock – which main issue is debt and installments, or a lawyer like Sexton that once said: "Do not expect the university to change its position this decade or next decade.”

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