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Student Debt and the University Response

June 30, 2014

By: Mary Anne Fitzpatrick

Television specials and newspaper accounts are full of stories of (usually liberal arts) college graduates, living with Mom and Dad, with no jobs and hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for their college education.  Their debt is said to be crippling our economy as young people are so tied to paying off the debt that they cannot marry, buy homes, cars and so on.

But a recently released report from the Brookings Institute—Is a Student Loan Crisis on the Horizon by Beth Akers and Matthew M. Chingos—depicts a very different picture.

Demonstrated in the report, incomes for college graduates have remained high and data from the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) administered by the Federal Reserve Board indicates that the debt burden on the majority of students has stayed the same or even decreased over the past two decades.

So much for the good news.  The report goes on to state that the real debt burden falls on students who do not finish their undergraduate degree and graduate.  This debt load has increased dramatically over the past two decades.  An obvious step to help these students is for USC to hold tuition down as much as possible.  In spite of the significant decrease in funding from the state, we have been working since 2008 on just that principle.  We are also putting in place a number of academic initiatives to help students to finish their undergraduate degrees.   

The College is committed to maintaining our standards of excellence.  But we also want to do what we can so that students can maintain their grade point averages and their scholarships.  This lessens the economic burden.

This commitment means that we have the responsibility as educators to develop and enforce course prerequisites for mathematics, for languages and for basic sciences (i.e., basic chemistry requires specific math skills).  We have instituted a series of placement tests for many of our basic courses, not to punish students or to impede their progress, but to insure that students start their University careers in the correct level of a course.  It is not in the best interests of the students to take courses for which they are not prepared and, as a result, will do poorly or fail.

Moreover, we are participating in a major data analysis initiative to develop profiles of students who have succeeded in their academic careers and to use this data for more informed advising.  For example, a particular student may want to major in accounting but has received a grade of C in a 100-level course.  Five years of data on previous student records might indicate that 90% of the students who continue successfully in an accounting major have received A grades in that particular mathematics course.  Working with an advisor, the student can make a more informed decision about that major before they proceed too far and either drop out or need to change majors and spend more than four years in college.

We have a number of other initiatives to reduce the cost of attending USC.  Palmetto College brings together the resources of the entire University of South Carolina system to combine the quality of a USC degree with the flexibility of online learning.  Students who are working or who have geographical limits can complete a variety of undergraduate degrees in this program.  I am proud to be leading On Your Time, a suite of programs ranging from completing a four year degree in three semesters and two summers, to “boot camps” to help entering students be ready for challenging science courses, to one week science laboratory courses in January and in May to free up time in the fall, spring and summer for other high priority subjects.  Summer school has become a true full semester where students can take 15-18 credits and as of May 2015 use their state scholarship money to facilitate their early graduation.

Read Previous Posts By Dean Fitzpatrick.