I am sure by now many of you are aware that The New York Times is publishing a series of articles on student loans entitled Degrees of Debt. The first article in the series appeared in the May 13 Sunday Times and Kelsey Griffith, an ONU Class of 2012 graduate, was prominently featured because she had accumulated $120,000 in loans.  


Because the article has been so widely distributed and omitted relevant facts, I am writing to provide important information the authors were given but failed to report. My hope is that this commentary may answer questions you may have or might help you respond to questions from colleagues and friends outside the University.


First, I would like to address the article itself. It is not hard to feel very sympathetic toward Kelsey and the harsh difficulty she will have paying back such a huge debt. However, it is important to note that her level of borrowing is not typical.The New York Times article focused its attention on students with the highest debt. Those with a debt of $120,000 are outliers and are not the norm, either at ONU or nationally. Indeed, those with debt over $100,000 make up fewer than 3% of students nationally.


And yet, how is it that students can graduate from college with a debt of $120,000? Outside of a family's particular financial circumstances, two factors can and do significantly raise a student's debt load: changing majors and taking longer than four years to graduate. For example, the average debt for students with loans who graduate from the College of Business Administration in four or fewer years is $42,000. But for those who take more than four years, the average is $52,000.


What is most disturbing about the article and a related NPR story is the implication that the University advises students to ignore the sticker price and suggests they don't need to worry about costs. ONU never has offered such advice nor suggested to students that they take a worry-free attitude about cost, and we never will. What we do tell our students is that very few pay the full price because so many receive financial aid, and that we will work with them to do all we can to make ONU affordable in light of their particular financial circumstances.


We do all we can to counsel families about the real costs of a Northern education and try to fully explain the options for paying those costs. The final decision about how to pay for the education comes down to the family. When the family chooses to go out to private lenders to finance their student's education, the responsibility for that financial decision and its outcome falls primarily on the student and their family.


In the NPR story I cited above, the reporter asked Kelsey what she would do if she could hit the reset button and start anew. Kelsey's answer may surprise you. She said she would probably borrow the same amount because her desire to come to ONU was so strong. While she regrets not being more aware of her situation, she does not blame the University and insists she received a great education. Nonetheless, her case does raise the question of whether the University should deny students the ability to enroll because they must incur too much debt to make it work. It is a question worth asking, and we must have that conversation.


Typically, for a prospective student, their first points of contact are the offices of Admission and Financial Aid. The staff talks to students and their parents about the costs and what their many payment options are. These offices have also implemented actions that identify and counsel current students who are at a high risk of not graduating in four years. The offices have also recently expanded their efforts to make our students more financially literate.


 Another disturbing feature of the article is how it ignores those who manage debt effectively and are receiving the benefits of a college education and meeting their reasonable loan repayment obligations. Derek Thompson writing in The Atlantic fills the conspicuous void in the Times story when he writes:


College grads still earn more, work longer, and are employed at higher rates than everybody else. Their investment - that is, their debt - benefits the country at large in the form of a more-skilled workforce, higher productivity, higher GDP, more taxes, and so on. Newspapers can't report on this part of the student debt crisis, because there is no headline statistic to report on.


His post also includes a very interesting graphic that clearly shows the distribution of student debt levels among the nation's college students.


We regret that a student like Kelsey has a high debt level, and we accept our share of responsibility for her situation.  Nonetheless, the majority of our students repay their federal loans at a remarkable 99% rate, meaning that less than 1% of our 2010 graduating class has defaulted, a rate very similar to previous classes. The national default rate is more than 8.8%.


We also inform parents and their students that ONU offers a high-quality education, and that we have a very high placement rate (94% for our 2011 graduates). We tell them that when PayScale did a study on Ohio Northern's return on investment (ROI), ONU was ranked in the top 21% nationally and is among the top six schools in Ohio. This ROI analysis is significant in that it shows how ONU graduates fare better than most in terms of earnings over time and that the ONU debt load average (in comparison to earning potential) is balanced and reasonable. PayScale Inc., or payscale.com as it is also known, is an online salary, benefits, and compensation information company that launched its service 10 years ago.  It was developed to help people obtain accurate real-time information on job market compensation.


All of these facts - our low default rate, our high placement rate, and our high ROI rate - together with efforts to identify students at financial risk and expand financial literacy activities, were shared with the Times reporter. None of them were included in the article.


In addition to these shortcomings and omissions, the article also contains errors and inaccuracies. Fortunately, a correction has already been issued.


Many have asked why the Times focused on ONU. The answer deserves a full explanation. In February, a reporter from the Times visited campus to discuss the latest annual report from The Project on Student Debt (TPSD), which showed that ONU ranked very high nationally among private colleges both in terms of overall student debt and where the majority of the debt was in private, not federal, loans. Bowling Green State University ranked very high among public universities, so the reporter visited both campuses.


A few words about TPSD report are in order. The data presented in the report have many limitations, even though they are the only national data available that show cumulative student debt levels for bachelor's degree recipients every year. Regarding those limitations, the report itself states the following:


Colleges that accurately calculate and report each year's debt figures rightfully complain that other colleges may have students with higher average debt but fail to update their figures, under-report actual debt levels, or never report figures at all. Additionally, very few for-profit colleges report debt data ... and borrowing levels at for-profit colleges are, on average, much higher than borrowing levels at other types of colleges.


Moreover, only 1,067 of the eligible 1,923 colleges reported results.


ONU has reported our data completely and accurately. Other private colleges in the state with which we compete do not report. Add to this the fact that many media outlets that write about TPSD results never put those data in context, and some of the Internet-based outlets actually sensationalize the results. Consequently, ONU will suspend our future participation until the limitations of TPSD data are adequately addressed.


The intent here is to give you a broader context for understanding the many variables that impact student debt in general, and ONU in particular, as it relates to the Times article. We can and we will always strive to do better with each individual student. Collectively, however, there is ample evidence that our students receive a quality education, and the benefits of that education enable them to lead meaningful and successful lives as contributing members of their professions and their communities.


You will probably be hearing much more about student debt and student loans in the coming months as political activity builds leading up to the national elections. We hope you find the information presented here helpful and insightful regarding the important issues related to student debt. As always, I welcome your questions and/or comments about these issues or others that impact the advancement of Northern in pursuit of its vital mission.



Daniel A. DiBiasio


Ohio Northern University