In President Eric Barron’s first official address to the Board of Trustees today at Penn State Schuylkill, he used a graph-heavy presentation to explain his outlook on fixing student affordability and debt issues in a straightforward, professor-like manner that took about 40 minutes.
The way he conducted the presentation itself was more noteworthy than its content. He eschewed shelling out the typical public relations news in exchange for an honest examination of why so many students graduate with debt or do not graduate on time — he even underscored the fact that Penn State received a record 124,000 applications by presenting it as “the good news” before listing the “not-so-good news” regarding affordability. Certainly, it was a departure from the brief, positively-slanted reports of Rodney Erickson and other presidents, so much so that Trustee Mark Dambly said some discussion of Penn State’s accomplishments would have been nice (Dambly, by the way, is chair of the Finance, Business, and Capital Planning Committee).
Barron cited growing student debt numbers in the latter of the news variations — 66 percent of students are currently graduating with debt, and student default rates have grown every year since the recession’s beginning. His biggest concern seemed making sure students graduate on time.
“The biggest tuition increase [for a student]is for them to not graduate in 4 years,” he said during a corresponding slide that read, “debt without a degree is an even bigger tragedy [than just plain ol’ debt].” He noted that student borrowing rates increase dramatically if they take a fifth or sixth year of college. A dilemma also exists wherein increased student work hours results in less class time, therefore making students graduate late anyway.
His proposed focus to fix things (which is explained in depth from slides 18-21) is four-pronged:
- Assess extent to which attrition and time to degree is associated with financial need,
- Seek resources to provide a “Penn State Promise,” wherein if a student works 20 hours a week, Penn State will cover remaining unmet need,
- Examine options for utilizing relatively inexpensive summer sessions to decrease costs (of which I was a big fan, as a former LEAPer),
- and examine programs that address issues to impact time to degree, like LionPATH.
It felt like Barron was a professor giving a lecture to a very interested classroom, seriously. On the whole, the board was appreciative of his straightforward approach to issues, with most questioners following his address providing kudos. Student affordability is one of the six major points Barron has outlined that need to be addressed here.
Who knows how effective these measures will be — college affordability is clearly a complex issue to tackle. For now, at least, we should appreciate how Barron went about discussing them.
Here’s his whole presentation: