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.