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Metro Monday: Here's a Wise Investment: Help Students Who Need Money to Finish College

Two weeks ago, I challenged Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco's claim that "a great many gifted and motivated young people are excluded from college for no other reason than their inability to pay." I had never found a student like that who couldn't get into college because of money, I said, and asked readers who disagreed with me to point out examples so I could write about them.

So far, it looks like I was right. No such cases have materialized. Even the most impoverished students who contacted me acknowledged that they had gotten into community colleges. Many experts endorsed my view that admission officers will do anything to find places for students that fit Delbanco's description because they add so much to their campuses and are so rare.

But that doesn't solve the real problem. As I said, the best of the impoverished students are not the issue. When Delbanco made his statement in the New York Review of Books, it would have been better if he had substituted the adjectives "capable and promising" for "gifted and motivated" and emphasized the problem of staying in college, rather than just getting in, for average students with unrealized potential.

College dreams rarely die in the exciting days of August and September when students sign up for courses. The bad news often comes in the spring, at the end of students' first or second year. Their scholarships expire. They get sick and can't work. Their parents lose their jobs. Their grandparents decide they can no longer co-sign loans. Any one of those personal crises is enough to leave an unpaid balance on their tuition bill, which means no more courses until they pay.

Valerie Ross, who lives in Gaithersburg, says her daughter worked hard her first year at George Mason University but still owes $5,700. Ross's financial situation is perilous, and she can't help. Raylene F. Ballard, who works in the District, says her son is in the same fix at Ball State University, despite his 3.8 grade-point average.

Some people blame the students and their families: They didn't save for college. They chose expensive four-year schools when community college classes were just as good for the first two years. They failed to research the college financing game, described in such books as "How to Pay For College Without Going Broke" by Reecy Aresty. Available money was left untouched. Lois Stoner, for example, says her small scholarship board in Montgomery County received only five applications this year for the dozen or so $500 to $1,000 grants it has available.

People who started school with me back when the most expensive annual tuition was $2,000 wonder what happened to working your way through. Shirley Manson of Annapolis says she had a friend who "had a full time job, took courses at night and earned her degree after 11 years of hard work."

Actually, even with tuition rates skyrocketing, many students are trying to do just that. Hannah Howard, 21, paid for all her tuition and books during two years of community college, but she says the cost of getting her bachelor's degree at a Maryland state college may be beyond her until she is old enough to get loans without a co-signer.

My e-mails reveal many people working their way through college who are illegal immigrants. Community and state colleges let them enroll as international students, but it is not that big of a favor. A Montgomery County high school student with a 3.9 grade-point average, calling herself Denisse G., says that under the international student label, she will have to pay out-of-state tuition in Maryland, increasing the chances that she will face an unpaid balance.

As a nation, we admire plucky students who deny themselves even little luxuries such as movies and restaurant meals so every spare dollar can go toward their tuition and who earn degrees after a decade or so working two or three jobs. Unfortunately, research shows they learn less that way and are more likely to drop out.

Karl Reid, a senior vice president at the United Negro College Fund, says students who have trouble paying for college approach their courses with less confidence and engage less with professors and out-of-class activities that often lead to satisfying careers.

Two weeks ago, I argued that blaming colleges for not admitting poor students overlooked the failure of high schools to get many low-income students ready for college, even if they could afford it. But, surprisingly, that is a problem that does not take much money to fix. Our most effective public high schools have shown they can raise achievement for impoverished students by changing faculty, student and parent attitudes about such students' chances, without adding much to their budgets.

Once those students get to college, getting through and earning a degree is a money issue. Many students with a will to study don't have a way to pay for it. To get out of our national education rut -- in which no more than a third of our population completes college even as new knowledge-based industries demand more -- we have to invest more dollars in those students.

Where will those funds come from? There are many possibilities. My generation, for instance, is beginning to reap the benefits of decades of building entitlements for the elderly. In many ways that is a good thing. But the young people trying to complete college, the ones who are going to be paying for our Social Security and Medicare, need some help. There should be some way for us to give it to them.


By Washington Post Editors  | August 10, 2009; 11:35 AM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  college, college admissions, scholarships, school loans  
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Next: Admissions 101: College Pitfalls for Poor Students


"But the young people trying to complete college, the ones who are going to be paying for our Social Security and Medicare, need some help. There should be some way for us to give it to them." ~JM

Excuse me? Lesson #1 - you pay into your own Social Security, Jay.

Lesson #2 - that illegal immigrant you so adoringly referred to? That student is not paying taxes to the U.S. govt. to help with Medicare.

Lesson #3 - If the parents of these "poor" students had managed to maintain a decent credit rating, even if they didn't save for college, they would have been eligible for Parent Plus loans.

Lesson #4 - America is getting very sick and tired of whining Liberals like yourself claiming entitlements for those who don't deserve them.

Posted by: lisamc31 | August 10, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse


(lessong 2) most illegal immigrants do pay social security taxes and medicaid taxes on someone elses SS#. Its a dirty little secret the govt doesn't like to talk about because they get to keep all that money and pay none of it back out.

(lesson 5)If we are talking about poor parents who can't afford to buy a house (i.e. really poor people) then how are they going to pay for 30 or more thousand in parent loans for community college or 100,000 or more for a higher end 4 year college. The real anser is they won't

you forgot lesson 5. Once long ago after a really expensive war called WWII our grandfathers realized that you pay for education on the front end and create productive citizens or you pay on the back end and support them with welfare or in jail. So they spent huge amounts of money to send two generations to cheap school and we had the longest period of sustained growth in our history.

Now instead of that kind of long term view we listen to anst filled whiners like you moan about how wrong it is to educate the generation who'll support us in our old age. Sounds great while you are screaming about your pocket book won't work so well when everythings been outsourced to more forward looking countries because they sent thier kids to college.

But at least you'll go down blaming someone else. Thats alway easier than action.

Posted by: galfax | August 11, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

lisamc31 -

Lesson #1. You don't pay into your own social security. If you had any idea how SS works, you'd know that current elderly are being paid out of what the current young people are paying in. There is no lockbox. Young people are going to work for years and then see their SS disappear because there's no money left and not enough money coming from the next generation.

Lesson #3 - Already-poor parents going into debt to pay for their children's education - when they need to be saving for retirement, which they're probably not able to do either - is not the solution.

Lesson #4 - America is getting very sick and tired of whining Conservatives disregarding reality in favor of some political theory. We need more college-educated Americans, which means we need a way for people to pay for college. If you have a better idea than subsidizing education in some way, to get more people to get a degree, then let's hear it.

Posted by: a1231 | August 11, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Jay, the idea that you can prove (or disprove) anything based on blog responses is asinine.

Moreover, the idea that poor students have equal access to education as the rich, because they can work full time while attending a community college is equally unsatisfying.

Are you, a product of Harvard, I believe, really suggesting that a student working full time while attending a second tier college is given the same advancement potential and rich academic experience as someone who attends a four year college?

This series of articles is pathetic and needs to be ended. Your shoddy reasoning fataly undermines the work of others who actually conduct research to back up their hypotheses. Stick to journalism, and leave the editorializing to those who are qualified.

Posted by: kermit1001 | August 11, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Lisamc31 should try listening to someone other than Rush and Fox News. You are very, very wrong. Immigrants do pay taxes.

Posted by: Reader31 | August 11, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Kermit - just an aside - he says something about attending community college for the first two years. This is a fantastic opportunity that is terribly under-utilitized. Saves money, and better prepares many students for the rigors of a top-tier college.

In Virginia, for example, students can attend many of the community colleges, take a particular set of courses, and if they maintain a particular GPA (often around 3.4) they're guaranteed admission to UVA or any number of other schools. They can then do their last 2 years and get a degree - and all their resume says is that they graduated from UVA.

More students, particularly those who are not quite prepared enough or who are concerned about money, should take advantage of this.

Posted by: a1231 | August 11, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Excuse me? Lesson #1 - you pay into your own Social Security, Jay.

Posted by: lisamc31

Um. no you don't. what you are paying in is being used right now to pay out funds to current retirees. What young people pay in is what will be used to pay us. thus the current crisis, since there are more of us than there are of them, and what you are putting in isn't going to cover what many of us potentially could take out.

Posted by: Sweetpea2 | August 11, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

a1231, Sometimes atending a community college causes as many financial problems as they solve. Many 4-year schools, public as well as private, restrict the bulk of their scholarship programs to those entering from high school. The reason is that US News and other media rankings focus solely on freshmen enrollment data. The annual scholarship award to a HS graduate with a 3.5 GPA is likely to be better than a community college graduate with a 3.5 GPA.

Posted by: cprferry | August 11, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

"Lisamc31 should try listening to someone other than Rush and Fox News. You are very, very wrong. Immigrants do pay taxes."
Legal immigrants do pay taxes. Illegal aliens may and most likely do not. For example, the IRS had to stop issuing ITINs unless you file a return because it found that 2/3 of those who had them were not paying taxes. It seems the number was easily confused with the SSN and the IRS believed that illegal aliens were using it to obtain jobs. Also, a fair number of illegal aliens work off the books. Then, there are those who use fraudulent or stolen SSNs to "pay" taxes. There was quite a brouhaha in Colorado because 1,300 of these were claiming tax refunds to which they were not entitled. The IRS also estimates that illegal aliens collected about $1 BILLION in earned income tax credits that they weren't entitled to, either. Of course, as unskilled and uneducated workers, illegal aliens probably don't owe much in taxes anyway and almost certainly don't pay in anywhere near enough to cover the services they use, such as education for their kids or healthcare.

Posted by: Ali4 | August 11, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse

We need to consider the possibility that the problem with paying for college is NOT caused by too little aid, but rather by too high costs. I attended one of the best state colleges in Virginia about twenty years ago. Dorms had no air-conditioning; we didn't even have private phone lines in our rooms unless we paid to have them put in. (This was before cell phones, of course.) I am amazed when I visit colleges now and see climbing walls in the campus centers, state-of-the-art gyms, etc.

In addition, the standard teaching schedule for professors at many larger universities is 2-1: that means they teach two classes (for a total of 6 hours, plus 3 office hours) one semester, and one class (a total of 3 teaching hours and perhaps as many office hours) the other semester. Now, I know that they do research, write, etc., and that much of that work is very important. But six teaching hours a week?

As with so many things in this country, perhaps we need to stop figuring out how to get the government (read: us, the taxpayers) to pay ever-increasing costs, and start figuring out how we can keep those costs down without sacrificing quality. I believe it can be done.

Posted by: highschoolteacher | August 11, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Kermit1001: That is exactly what I am saying. I spent a lot of time gathering the evidence to back it up. Please give a quick read to Chapter One of my book Harvard Schmarvard, where I present this argument in full, and get back to me. The short version: success is linked to character traits, not college pedigree.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | August 11, 2009 5:49 PM | Report abuse

Highschoolteacher wrote:

"In addition, the standard teaching schedule for professors at many larger universities is 2-1: that means they teach two classes (for a total of 6 hours, plus 3 office hours) one semester, and one class (a total of 3 teaching hours and perhaps as many office hours) the other semester. Now, I know that they do research, write, etc., and that much of that work is very important. But six teaching hours a week?"

Sorry, I almost choked on my bonbons when I read this! I teach at said "larger university" and have a 4:4 load. In addition to the many service requirements and my own research (which is part of my job...not just an aside), I frequently average well above 50 hours per week. I agree that there are many wasteful amenities at many universities, but the work of a professor is not sitting around eating bonbons and collecting a huge check. P.S. - my wife, a school teacher, has a higher salary than I do! Now, where should I toss my wrappers.

Posted by: bartelby | August 11, 2009 6:53 PM | Report abuse

bartelby, It sounds like you may be an adjunct professor? All the work, none of the benefits.

Posted by: cprferry | August 11, 2009 7:20 PM | Report abuse

what would happen if twenty million illegals left our country?

American citizens killed by illegal aliens!

Mexico's second highest income is from illegals sending money home! google it! do you understand how really HUGE that is?? how many of them MUST be here illegally to make that happen?? 12 million? HA! more like 40 million?? we are being invaded, without one shot being fired! does anybody have a CLUE?? whos job it is to protect and defend the United States?? to ABIDE by the CONSTITUTION???? what does it mean? to break the law? why all the infighting? they broke the LAW! period! google "operation w*tback" Eisenhower had this very same problem. he quietly and EFFECTIVLY took care of it! why can we not do the same??? they walked, rode, swam over here. they can do the same going home taking their anchor babies with them! and then, if they want. they can GET IN LINE. like all the rest of the "LAW ABIDING " people that do it the RIGHT WAY!!!

Posted by: pyrostevo2 | August 12, 2009 8:53 AM | Report abuse

I have to agree with highschoolteacher on her point that we really need to start focusing on how to cut costs. I've worked in higher ed for almost ten years and can safely say that universities are great at spending money on frivolous things. faculty salaries are not necessarily one of them. While there are faculty who "abuse" their tenure or opt out of courses to do "research and service," there are many who work a full courseload, are in their office every day, and contribute meaningfully to their universities. I would be in favor of a complete and thorough review of all university expenses- right down to the office supplies- and make some serious efforts to reign in spending.

On a final note: one local university, who shall remain nameless, intentionally raised tuition to create a brand name. The thinking was that if the tuition was high enough, people would assume they were getting a better product. Years later, we find ourselves in a situation where realistically, only certain students can actually afford the tuition all four years and the quality of the school never improved.

Posted by: cah22209 | August 12, 2009 8:55 AM | Report abuse

Moving to Mexico
Dear Mr. President, Senate and House of Representatives:

I'm planning to move my family and extended family (18-20 mouths) into Mexico for my health, and I would like to ask you to assist me.

We're planning to simply walk across the border from the U.S. into Mexico , and we'll need your help to make a few arrangements.

We plan to skip all the legal stuff like visas, passports, immigration quotas and laws. I'm sure they handle those things the same way you do here.

So, would you mind telling your buddy, President Calderon, that I'm on my way over? Please let him know that I will be expecting the following:

1. Free medical care for my entire family.

2. English-speaking government bureaucrats for all services I might need, whether I use them or not.

3. All Mexico government forms need to also be printed in English.

4. I want my kids to be taught Spanish by English-speaking (bi-lingual) teachers.

5. Schools need to include classes on American culture and history.

6. I want my kids to see the American flag on one of the flag poles at their school.

7. Please plan to feed my kids at school for both breakfast and lunch.

8. I will need a local Mexican driver's license so I can get easy access to government services.

9. I do plan to get a car and drive in Mexico, but, I don't plan to purchase car insurance, and I probably won't make any special effort to learn local traffic laws.

10. In case one of the Mexican police officers does not get the memo from their president to leave me alone, please be sure that every patrol car has at least one English-speaking officer.

11. I plan to fly the U.S. flag from my house top, put U S. flag decals on my car, and have a gigantic celebration on July 4th. I do not want any complaints or negative comments from the locals.

12. I would also like to have a nice job without paying any taxes, or have any labor or tax laws enforced on any business I may start.

13. Please have the president tell all the Mexican people to be extremely nice and never say a critical things about me or my family, or about the strain we might place on their economy.

I know this is an easy request because you already do all these things for all his people who come to the U.S. from Mexico .
I am sure that President Calderon won't mind returning the favor if you ask him nicely.

Thank you so much for your kind help,

Sincerely, US Citizen & Taxpayer

Posted by: pyrostevo2 | August 12, 2009 8:58 AM | Report abuse

The replies to this column and subsequent posts are ridiculous.
Some the derisive replies claim these students want "entitlements" that they don't "deserve."

Mr. Mathews encouraged investing in HIGH ACHIEVING students with no means of paying, not poor people that simplify qualified for college. Who could be more deserving of financial help than bright, young SCHOLARS who lack the means? Mr. Mathews sought a solution; instead, readers did nothing but attempt to discourage students in this situation.

It's sickening that adults presumably better educated and wiser than I would choose to believe in right wing propaganda. I'm talking about you pyrostevo2.

An undocumented immigrant would not make his or her status known to you. Due to the social stigma of being illegal and the legal consequences of being discovered, statuses are often kept secret; they live amongst us and no different from us, often without hint of stress or struggle. They are our neighbors, coworkers, classmates, fellow church congregants, and friends. They are members of the community, perhaps even people we love and respect. Think about that.

You'd be surprised by the number of undocumented people that aren't Mexican, that continually pay taxes (including my own family, thank you very much), that aren't a burden to the United States. I really don't understand why someone like yourself would need to vilify Mexican immigration so much. All you're doing with your ENTIRE list is stereotyping, scapegoating, fear mongering, promoting xenophobia -- take your pick. You're willingly obscuring the truth, willfully ignorant of reality. Secondly, even regular American citizens are guilty of the "offenses" on your list. I see no angry pitchfork-mobs on the horizon for them.

Posted by: CAEU | August 14, 2009 8:56 PM | Report abuse

If I may clarify my previous comments (this is for you, bartleby): First, I never suggested that the salaries of university professors/instructors were too high. I'm not advocating cutting salaries. What I said was, "the standard teaching schedule for professors at many larger universities is 2-1." While perhaps I should have substituted "some" for "many," it IS true that this is the schedule of professors that I know personally. (I will also grant you that none of them teach in Maryland colleges. One of them, in fact, left a Maryland university to go to a school up north because of the schedule.)

Sorry if that part offended anyone; I didn't mean to imply anything about EVERY professor. I've taught at the (community) college level, and I know how much work is involved. I also know how upset I get if anyone suggests that public school teachers "only work 9 months a year."

My larger point, though, was that while the excesses are different at different schools, almost all schools could cut costs without hurting the academic program. But as long as the government funds ever-increasing grants and loans, there's no incentive to do so.

Posted by: highschoolteacher | August 14, 2009 9:13 PM | Report abuse

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