Pell Grant increases discussed among state officials

Matthew Malone

The ins and outs of student loan debt and financial aid formed the focus of discussion Friday at the Student Aid Commission Symposium on Student Debt.

The symposium featured Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and senior vice president of the college of financial advice site, and panel discussions that included federal and state officials, an entrepreneur and a Sacramento State professor.

A day earlier, the Institute for College Access & Success, or TICAS, an education research organization, reported “seven in 10 seniors (69 percent) who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2013 had student loan debt, with an average of $28,400 per borrower.”

During his presentation, Kantrowitz drew a distinction between good debt and bad debt. He said student loans are good debt to a point because college-educated workers generally earn more, but said students should favor gift aid, such as scholarships and grants.

“While student loan debt is good debt because it’s an investment in the student’s future, too much of it can be a bad thing,” Kantrowitz said.

As a rule of thumb when taking out student loans, Kantrowitz said to keep total debt below the expected first-year salary in a student’s chosen field.

The TICAS report indicated California and Sac State students take on significantly less debt than other states and universities. California seniors graduating with loans had the second-lowest average debt per borrower, at $20,340.

Debbie Cochrane, research director at TICAS, attributed this to California’s relative emphasis on public universities.

Roughly four in 10 Sac State seniors who graduated last year had loans, and the debt burden was $4,551 on average, the lowest of the CSU’s included in the report.

A refrain several speakers and commissioners took up was the need for programs promoting financial literacy among students, so they can make sound decisions when financing their education.

“We really did feel like there was something more we could do besides try to keep the student loan debt down,” said Rachelle Feldman, assistant vice chancellor and director of the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office at UC Berkeley.

Feldman said UC Berkeley has an in-person counseling program for students who are borrowing at a higher rate than is advisable.

Su Jin Gatlin Jez, a Sacramento State public policy and administration professor, said, to increase access to college, attention to wealth disparities is important. Jez distinguished wealth, the value of everything one owns minus everything one owes on it, from income, cash flow over time.

Jez said wealth is a more reliable predictor of student success than income or socioeconomic factors like race.

“Wealth is what really provides opportunities for families,” Jez said.

Both Jez and Kantrowitz called for expanded grant programs. Kantrowitz said tripling the award amounts of federal Pell Grants would generate a 15 percent economic return on the government’s investment.

Greg Leib, CEO and president of Terra Fossil Wines, explained how partnerships with the private sector could assist students. His company, whose dinosaur-adorned wines are currently sold in the Bay Area, donates a portion of its proceeds to scholarship programs at university and college partners.

Terra Fossil has organized a video campaign on student debt with Sonoma State students, and Leib said he wanted to pursue a similar partnership at Sac State.

Diana Fuentes-Michel, executive director of the Student Aid Commission, said after the symposium that monetary assistance is something students deserve if they work hard and get good grades.

Fuentes-Michel said she was convinced of financial aid’s importance after receiving a Cal Grant B for four years, which allowed her to become the first in her family to graduate from college.

“I see financial aid as part of what a democracy provides,” Fuentes-Michel said.