Student debt reduction crucial

I sent this letter to a Williams senior I’ve known since before he was born. (Name changed to protect the guilty.) I’m disappointed but not surprised that he didn’t bother to reply. What I don’t understand about the spirit of Williams students these days is why you all just pay this tuition and accept these crippling student debts. Through hard work, magnificent alumni generosity and superb investment management, Williams has an endowment large enough by any measure to eliminate student loans, as Princeton did. By any measure Williams could quite easily also just eliminate tuition. For reasons I can’t understand, neither the trustees nor the administration have folded their arms, put their feet down and given this serious public consideration. I just helped a member of the class of ’99 find a job. But for her loans, she would have been a teacher, and a fine one, too. Instead, she went to a law firm. No one’s ever said the world had enough teachers or needed more lawyers.

Why don’t you all see what you can do?

Dear Ephraim,

Graduating. Good for you. Sounds as though you’ve done a fabulous job. Hope you are proud of yourself.

I keep thinking about what on earth I could come up with for a graduation present. Anything I buy would miss the mark. The best I can come up with is just an idea. Perhaps one that will propel you to a better job than you’re now on track for.

What would it take to eliminate the class debt, the student loans, for the Williams Class of ’02? Or even for everyone at Williams right now? Sorting this out will take a lot of thinking, sweat and obstacles higher than Mt. Greylock.

What if, in addition to not having a job, students faced payments on $50,000 loans at the end of the summer? Scary stuff. What about your classmates who want to go on to graduate school that can cost as much as Williams again? No job. No way to pay off the loans. Scary and discouraging. No way to start on their path.

When I moved to Cambridge and stepped down as your trustee a few years back, you already had about $300,000 in your account. Unless your new trustee is a buffoon, it’s got to be at least that much now. Why do you need a paying job right away? You need something worthwhile to do, yes. But why take a banking job from one of your classmates with loans?

Never mind the paycheck, for now. Take a crack at a big problem. Who better to serve as you head into the world than your own classmates? You could even fund a few of you taking this problem on. The result is more than retiring debt – your efforts are also freeing up Williams brainpower that might otherwise crash beneath these debts.

What is the class debt? Those in your class as, and more, fortunate than you may just be off to pay the debt. If that’s too much, what would paying the debt service for, say, five years take? Give your debt-bearing classmates breathing room to establish themselves in the world. Yale long ago said everyone in the class would pay two percent of their income until class debt was paid off. This idea died off. Perhaps, after scrimping and holding jobs all summer and through every vacation, those people could even take a rest.

Why not have Williams pay off the debt? Or the payments for a while? It’s discouraging to read a senior Williams official saying in the Times that the $1.3 billion endowment is for a rainy day and that “It’s raining.” Raining? Not as good as a few years ago? Raining? Compared to, say, 1929 or Europe after WWII or anywhere in Africa or North Adams today?

I admit I cannot understand why you all pay these tuitions and accept these debts as inevitable. My jaw still drops in horror at my conversation with two trustees when Princeton eliminated student loans. “We don’t lose that many students to Princeton,” one told me. “Why should we do that?”

“We think that’s wrong. We (trustees) talked about that. We think it’s wrong just to give away something worth $50,000 a year without any sense of obligation. We think you need skin in the game,” another told me.

I’ve known the second one forever. “Wait a minute. Your college education was a gift outright from your parents. As was mine. Has that made us unworthy people? You mean rich kids don’t need skin in the game, but poor people do?”

That trustee has barely spoken to me since. The head of the trustees ignored my questions.

For this round, I’m CFO of a university ten times the size of Williams. I can do the higher ed math. If Williams wants to charge tuition or inflict loans on folks, market forces let them. It’s not need for the cash, though. What’s more important — a student center or letting you all enter the world free to do your best?

Go to the library and grab Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born by Denise Shekerjian. Check out the three rules of Shirley Brice Heath, Stanford professor who started life in the rural South with no books in her home. Three rules “that have governed her adult life. . .: never accept that it can’t be solved; understand that in order to solve it you’re going to have to break down some structural barriers; and don’t ever think the solution is going to be easy.” Browse through Lives of Moral Leadership by Robert Coles. Do you really need a job-offer letter to get you going?

Visiting Williams a while back, I asked students why they paid without protest or even question. The conversations were discouraging. None knew what to do. One sophomore from Dallas stays with me. He was wondering whether just to go home to a local college. “If I stay here, with all these loans, I’ll be enslaved to Williams,” he told me. Haunting words. He is black.

I know you’ve got this note, Ephraim. Hit reply and tell me that by your graduation the student debt of ’02 will be history.