Low-income students lag in grad rates, loan repayment

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Low-income students working to get a higher education are in peril, graduating less often than their middle-income counterparts and struggling to pay down their college loans, according to two new studies.

Among those struggling the most are those attending Wayne State University. Three years after leaving school, 40 percent of students at the Detroit institution had failed to pay anything toward their student loan principal, according to data released by the White House.

Wayne State’s nonrepayment rate — which includes those in default, deferment, forbearance or paying only interest — is the highest among the state’s 15 public universities and above the national average of 33 percent.

The University of Michigan-Flint and Eastern Michigan aren’t far back: 36 percent and 29.1 percent of former students, respectively, fell into the nonrepayment category calculated by ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative, public-interest journalism.

By contrast, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor boasts the lowest nonrepayment rate among the state’s public universities: 7 percent.

The data is in a trove of information in a website called College Scorecard, aimed at helping students and families gauge colleges.

It comes as another study, released last week by the Education Trust-Midwest, shows a stark graduation gap between low-income students and their middle-income counterparts. Nationally, according to the study, 51 percent of Pell Grant recipients graduate within six years, compared with 65 percent of students who don’t get the federal grants.

Michigan State graduates 72 percent of Pell Grant recipients within six years, the report reads. Its overall graduation rate is 78 percent, according to the National Center on Education Statistics.

Even for graduates who are current on their loans, debt can weigh on them for years.

John Moy, 33, of Detroit, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and a law degree from WSU, couldn’t find work right after graduating and needed help from his parents to stay current on his loans.

Moy, who’s working as a freelance writer, has $50,000 in outstanding student loans and expects to be indebted into his 40s.

“It’s an omnipresent thing if you want to go to college,” he said. “It follows you around for so long. It totally affects everything. You question whether it was worth it.”

Michigan universities with low loan repayment rates say they face two key obstacles: a lack of state funding and many students from low-income families, who begin college at a disadvantage to their wealthier classmates.

“It’s important to note that Eastern Michigan University serves a very diverse student population, among the most diverse in Michigan, with people from a wide variety of economic backgrounds,” said EMU spokesman Geoff Larcom. “This includes many first-generation students, students with outside jobs, students who have their own families and transfer students who are making a midcareer change. Nearly 50 percent of our undergraduate students are federal Pell Grant recipients, and 32 percent are first-generation students.”

Pell Grants, targeted at low-income students, provide up to $5,775 this academic year — less than 40 percent of the $15,831 cost of tuition, room and board at UM-Dearborn, the state’s cheapest public university. The federal awards typically go to those from families with annual income of $30,000 or less.

Larcom pointed to the 71 percent of EMU students who are paying down debt, which is above the national average of 67 percent. He said the university’s financial aid budget has increased 11 percent for this coming year, to $48.5 million, and has grown 127 percent over the last eight years.

“We work extensively with students in helping them succeed academically and economically, at Eastern and beyond,” he said.

At Wayne State, President M. Roy Wilson called this month on the school and students to commit to a goal of graduating in four years — even though WSU has one of the worst six-year graduation rates, 32 percent, among the state’s 15 public universities.

Getting students to graduate sooner lowers the overall cost of a student’s education — including the amount of money a student has to borrow, said Gabriela Garfield, WSU’s interim senior director of financial aid.

But at WSU, which costs $20,199 annually, including tuition, books and living expenses, the financial situation of students is precarious, Garfield said.

Forty-eight percent of students receive Pell Grants, and 60 percent get federal student loans.

Though WSU increased its financial aid funding, diminished state funding and the university’s limited endowment leave it short of meeting all student demands, Garfield said. WSU’s endowment was $276 million in 2013, according to ProPublica, compared with $8.3 billion for UM.

“We are always in the position of what we are going to do to help students pay their tuition, and also considering how much ... they have to borrow,” she said. “The issue is we are being compared on scorecards to other high research institutions who benefit from resources that Wayne State does not have available.”

UM-Flint Chancellor Susan Borrego said she didn’t want to make excuses, but she called the scorecard a “data dump.”

“The data is both troubling and informative,” said Borrego. “It’s part of what we’ve got to prioritize and what we have prioritized in the last year.”

The College Scorecard includes information about college costs, student debt, potential earnings and more, available at https://collegescorecard.ed.gov.

Announced by President Barack Obama in 2013, the scorecard is a two-year initiative that, initially, was supposed to gather data from the nation’s 7,000 colleges and universities to be used in a ranking system for students.

But many college presidents opposed the idea, so it has since been turned into an online database with extensive information, but no rankings.

Even so, it has come under criticism. In a letter published in the New York Times, Carol Geady Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, called the metrics “deeply flawed” and an acceleration of “what has been a narrowing of the American dialogue about the purposes of higher education over the last two decades.”

“We do have metrics we can use to investigate issues like whether college is preparing students to tackle complex questions or contribute to the larger society,” Schneider wrote. “It is time for policy leaders to use them.”

Srikanth Neelamraju, a WSU doctoral student who hasn’t had to take out student loans, says it’s not necessarily the fault of the university or student that repayment is tough. “There are probably people who are not able to find a job after graduation. “There’s tough competition out there.”