Thursday, July 17, 2014

Ivory Tower: A Worthy Documentary

Filmmaker Andrew Rossi examines sustainability of the soaring costs of higher education in the United States.

As a mother still paying off my son’s student loans, I was both curious and reluctant to see Rossi's new documentary.  Curious because I hoped to learn more about the system I never quite understood, and reluctant because I did not need another reminder of the pain that started from the preparation for my son’s college and extended beyond his graduation date.
Alma Mater by Lorado Taft, UI at Urbana-Champaign

Parental Management
Any thought on the subject inevitably brings to mind the dreadful term - FAFSA.  As Ivory Tower points out, in most cases parents become managers of their children’s college application process, which begins while kids are still at high school.  Despite faithful attendance to all parental sessions designed to throw some light on the murky complexities of college enrollment and financial aid application, I remain woefully ignorant on the subject to this day.

When someone puts any form or questionnaire in front of me, my mind goes blank. I pay hundreds of dollars to have my tax forms filed by professionals even though I am told that mine are so simple I should do them myself. So when an instructor at St. Anselm's Abbey School in Washington D.C. started explaining the FAFSA system and college application forms, my brain just switched off.  I had no choice but to become my son’s college manager, but it was the blind leading the blind. 

After numerous attempts online, mounting frustration and much swearing, I had to send the FAFSA papers by mail because the online system eventually got tired of my failed attempts to file them and started rejecting me. In the end, at least for that first year, the aggravation paid off because it was determined that my contribution should be $5,000 - a reasonable sum, no?  My son went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was entitled to in-state tuition, which was average, but the overall cost still amounted to about $20,000 a year, and in reality more.  So, that's an aid of $15,000, right?  Well, not exactly.   My son joined the ROTC program that first year and his tuition was waved. Even with that waiver, the cost for me was much more than $5,000.  And as I would learn later - the real cost was multiple times $5,000.

The same treacherous FAFSA waters had to be navigated three more times, without me getting any better at the helm. As it turned out the effort was not worth the trouble. From the second year on, the FAFSA determined that I was responsible for the complete cost of my son's attendance at the UI.  And once he dropped out of ROTC, there was a drastic increase in the total annual cost. The phantom called FAFSA, also determined that the college and all the related costs will be paid via student loans.

As I understood it, the loans were not due for payoff until the graduation date. But even while my son was still in college, I kept receiving several monthly bills,  ranging from $150 to $200.  When I made a phone call to have those bills explained, I was told that I cannot get any information without my son’s written approval because he was the one taking out the loans. Really? I fill out the forms, I have to give out detailed information about my income and assets (not that there are any),  about my financial obligations, lifestyle (what did you have for dinner last night?); I am responsible for college tuition, associated fees and the cost of living, but I am not entitled to get an explanation, unless my son graciously permits it? Not to mention that I had no access to his grades at school. In other words, as a parent I had every obligation, but no rights. Does that happen anywhere else in the world? I don’t think so.  At any rate, it turned out that those monthly bills were the interest on the loan.  So, in fact, the financial burden struck immediately, not after the graduation as I was made to believe. 

Higher Education Is Lucrative Business
When my son reached his fourth year at Urbana-Champaign, I felt like I could see some light at the end of the tunnel.  Then, about three weeks into the fall semester, he called me on the phone to plead: “Mom, I want to transfer.   I can’t stand it here any more.”   My heart went out to him, but I cajoled, I threatened and I explained in the strictest of terms that this was not a good idea.  After all, I pleaded , "it is almost the end of September.  In a few weeks you come home for Thanksgiving, then you get a month-long winter break, then you get a 3-week-long spring break and then - there's the graduation in mid-May.  All in all, 7-to-8 more months and you are free forever, with a diploma in your pocket.  

If you transfer now," I reasoned, "you will have to start almost from scratch because no school will recognize more than a few credits earned from the University of Illinois.   No school will give its diploma for the education received and paid for the most part at another institution.  In other words, years before seeing the Ivory Tower movie, I learned that college education in the United States is business, unlike in Europe, where in my time all I had to pay for were the textbooks and coffee.  At any rate, I must have scared my son enough to get him to survive that last year at UI and graduate.  

Soon after the graduation date, the huge bills from the student loan company started pouring in, too often it seemed to me, and (with my son’s kind permission) I inquired and learned that “he” had taken out more than one loan, each with a different interest rate: ranging from 7 percent to 8 percent.  And even though they were “his” loans, the bills were addressed to me and I was responsible for the loan repayment. To consolidate them into one loan, I would have to pay a hefty sum, which would only increase the debt.

Meanwhile, mortgage interest rates hit an all-time low following the 2008 global financial crisis, and everyone including me was re-financing.  During the re-fi process I learned that I can add other debts to the mortgage loan.  So I rolled in my son’s student loans.  Not only did that reduce the student loan interest rates by 4 to 5 points, it also gave me a complete managerial control over the debt, which was now de facto an de jure mine.   I remember asking myself what kind of society gives you a mortgage loan at 3.25 percent interest while slapping  7 or 8 percent on a student loan. My son's student loans are still being paid off as part of my mortgage, but no extra bills are poring in. 
And everything is simple and crystal clear.   If I have any questions, my mortgage company will happily answer them.

Filmmaker Andrew Rossi
Is Ivory Tower Crumbling?
The release of Rossi's documentary brought all these memories to mind. In the end, I decided to see it and I am glad I did. Yes, it was interesting to see inside the halls of such hallowed academic institutions as Harvard and Stanford, and, yes, it was sad to learn that the student loan debt has surpassed $1 trillion - more than the credit card debt. It was infuriating to see that most of that money goes on construction and luxuries and not on education, even though I had already known it. It was heartbreaking to watch the students of New York’s Cooper Union college losing the battle against the management that imposed fees on education in the historically tuition-free school. 

But it was also very inspiring to see how some Americans fight back. I had heard about the Uncollege movement a few years ago on NPR, but in the film, you could see how it actually works. I was especially impressed with the tuition-free Deep Springs College in Nevada's desert of Death Valley, where students are governing themselves. Instead of partying all night as many young people do in some expensive private colleges, Deep Springs students get up at sunrise to feed livestock and spend their free time cleaning the premises (including the toilets), repairing farm equipment, preparing their meals and doing other odd jobs. Plenty of exercise without state-of-the-art gym equipment and Olympic-size pools. And how nice to know that some educated young men will also be able to change a light bulb back home and perhaps fix a broken bicycle. It was also poignant to watch young black women still receiving life-changing education at Spelman College, Atlanta.

Ivory Tower makes you wonder whether it is worth accruing a lifelong debt for a Harvard
Harvard College
degree if it no longer secures a job that enables you to pay it off.  It is not a theoretical question – 
I have two friends with Harvard diplomas in their pockets who cannot find jobs. 

Andrew Rossi told PBS in an interview that "employability at a particular institution once someone graduates should be the priority in choosing a school, and not which university has the more popular football team, or the more lush student center." It would be well worth knowing how employable Deep Springs graduates are as well as those embracing the Uncollege education. Their success could ultimately foster a much needed drive in the United States toward a sustainable higher education model.

If you want a better explanation of the FAFSA system then my ranting here offers, you can also check it out on the Ivory Tower web page.   My uninformed advice is:  shop for a low-interest loan elsewhere.

No comments: