For most of history, college was seen as a positive step to advance one’s self, but it is now synonymous with the word “debt,” a word not commonly associated with advancement.
Headlines reveal a crisis: In 2020, a record $1.6 trillion in student loan debt, Forbes reported last week. The consequences of hefty debt can be dire for graduates, resulting in an inability to purchase homes or have children. Some presidential candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, are even using mass student-loan forgiveness as part of their platform.
But how did we get here?
“Many students for many years would just take what was offered. Take the loan debt and not give thought to anything else,” said Kim McDougall, 63, financial aid outreach counselor at Washington State University Vancouver. “Years and years of just, ‘Here’s your award. That’s it.’ ”
Though she says it’s not all the students’ fault. Colleges and high schools didn’t do well in the way of communicating.
McDougall’s position is new to the college’s administration after WSU created it in September. It’s a test run; a one-year, temporarily funded position that was created to help boost filing rates for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It also will help catch students who fell though the cracks when chosen for the federally mandated verification process, called FAFSA; the process ensures that students get all the federal financial aid they’re eligible for.
McDougall said that a third of students who apply must be verified to see they filed their FAFSA correctly.
“If they get selected for verification, that’s where we lose a lot of students because it’s just a huge daunting task of just ‘What do I turn in?’ So what we’re doing with my position, in conjunction with admissions counselors, is going out to the schools and meeting with students and helping them through that hurdle,” she said.
But the position is more than just making sure these applications are correct. In McDougall’s words, she attempts to “demystify” the financial side of going to college.
Her office in the Student Financial Services building has big windows overlooking a murky pond on campus, but McDougall is mostly out in the field leading financial aid workshops and giving presentations. She previously worked in the Cougar Center for 12 years, and before that, worked as an administrator at Prairie High School. She finished a bachelor’s degree in social science at WSU Vancouver in 2017, an achievement that took 10 years and was cheap, since she is a college employee.
The Columbian caught up with her to learn a bit about what she does.
What financial situations are you observing most often with students you’re helping?
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The big initiative that we’ve got going with these verification workshops and FAFSA/WASFA filing workshops are at our service-based schools. They are lower-income schools, generally. The Expected Family Contribution is generally very low, if not zero, with many of these families. Many are from complicated and difficult family backgrounds where a parent may be out of contact. This is not such an uncommon situation.
How does that compare to other schools?
The way it compares as far as financial aid goes is the lower the Expected Family Contribution, the higher the grant funding. Students who are in that higher-need area are going to see more grant funding. Then there’s going to be less loan debt. Skyview High School would be an example of a demographic that doesn’t have as many high-need families — they’re going to be offered loans. They’re going to have less grant funding, but we still want to get into those schools and talk to them about scholarships. We want to point students to every resource possible, even if they are only loan eligible.
If they’re only loan eligible, what scholarships can they get?
There’s a scholarship for every type of student out there. See, this is part of the myth. Not all scholarships are need-based. They’re not all based on merit. They’re not all based on sports. The criteria is endless.
But a lot of these scholarships are competitive, and they might not cover the complete cost of school.
Yes, very competitive.
Do you see a higher percentage of people getting scholarships and grants versus loans now?
Our numbers of applicants for the WSU General Scholarship have probably quadrupled in the last five years. I think the key is that people aren’t out there advertising with sandwich boards: “Money here! Come here for free money!” They have to be assertive. They have to look for them. They have to ask. The other part of that is if a student is going to have to take out loans for their education, we want them to be well informed.
What do you think has changed with education around taking out loans?
I think financial aid offices have become acutely aware of the need to educate their students of what exactly they’re going into with loan debt. Compared to when I went to school, that was in the Dark Ages, there was no one to explain the differences. We have an obligation to educate them on what their resources are and what they’re getting into with loan debt. We know that loan debt is huge in this country, right? So if we can steer a student from that, or at least educate them on the best path with their loans, then we’re doing our job. We also have more of a responsibility I think the government is requiring — I don’t know if when you took out loans, did you have to do what’s called an Entrance Counsel? With federal regulations increasing too, we’ve got to educate students. You can’t just offer them this loan and say, “Here you go. Sign on the line.”
Do you ever feel like you’re in a conflicting sort of job? That is to say, the students’ objective is obviously seeking to pay as little money as possible to go to college, but the college is still a business and requires money to operate.
No. I’ll tell you why. Because if I have been able to be sure a student has filled out their FAFSA or WASFA correctly … If I have pointed them to every possible scholarship they have applied to, no I don’t feel I am doing a sales job per se. I feel like I’m doing a public service. Education is so valuable. Whether it be a two-year or four-year, technical college, it doesn’t matter. It’s a value. We’re better citizens. We have better options in life. Our earning potential is better.
So there’s been a lot of positive change with regard to the dialogue around financial aid. But what are still some of the challenges? What would help?
What would help is if the high school administrators and the high school counselors were able to devote the time needed to get us in (high schools) to help educate students. I think our frustration is when we have so much to offer, but we’ve got to be invited in. So it’s tough. I told one of our admissions counselors (that) I hate the feeling when I go to check into a high school like I’m the traveling salesman, when that’s not what I’m there to do. I’m there to help. We walked out and said, “We changed lives.” And we did. You could see it. When you’ve got kids crying because they’re realizing for the first time that not only is their tuition paid for, but they’ll have additional funding for transportation or a computer, it’s pretty life changing. I guess challenges are getting all the invitations that we’d like.