Focus and Higher Education

Student debt crisis ought to be industry’s top priority

Ferris president wants schools to offer students more help

October 20, 2012
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For years, local colleges have been looking for ways to change the current tide of increasing student debt.

David Eisler, president of Ferris State University, sat down with the Grand Rapids Business Journal’s editorial board recently and discussed his plans to help students save money.

“At the end of the day, universities are about people,” he said. “The real cut in your costs are people.”

Eisler called Ferris’s answer to budget cuts “a question of shared sacrifice.” He said when the state reduces funding, he doesn’t raise tuition to simply cover the loss; he cuts the budget, and tuition is only raised to meet ongoing costs.

Ferris’s recommended $190 million 2012-2013 fiscal year operating budget includes $41 million in state funding. Eisler said the number works out to $33 million, or about 18 percent of the budget, after the state takes funds for the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System.

“Candidly, the state has, in many ways, abandoned its responsibility for higher education,” he said. “Higher education was once seen as a public responsibility. Now, it’s become a private responsibility.”

Ferris has eliminated 129 positions through attrition, but it didn’t implement a hiring freeze, he said. If someone left, the university often didn’t fill the position.

Eisler said the industry’s top priority ought to be reducing the cost of a degree and student debt.

“I don’t think there’s a bigger challenge for any of us in higher education,” he said.

Of the $2.9 million in state funding Ferris did receive last year for performance-based metrics and tuition restraint, he said the university put $2.6 million into student-financing relief.

FSU also conducts sessions to teach incoming students and their parents financial literacy and cost containment.

The future will be collaborative, Eisler said, predicting college relationships with high schools and community colleges will continue to grow. Development courses in college are too expensive, he said, and students who come to college should get those completed before they arrive. He added that talented high school students should be able to earn 20 to 30 credits before entering college.

Cutting back on those early credits would help students graduate earlier. Many Ferris students juggle two to three jobs, Eisler said, and if, for instance, they graduated in five years instead of six, students collectively would save $14.3 million each year.

Eisler added that he’d like to double the amount of scholarships available for students with more private help.

Although significant student debt looms over higher education, Eisler said he’s still hopeful because of the character he finds in the current generation of students.

“This particular generation is more willing to help others than any other group I’ve seen in my career,” he said. “What I see in our students is more good than I’ve ever seen. It’s not that they do things I never did; they do things I’ve never even heard of before. It makes you excited about the country’s future.”

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