A liberal arts college tries a new strategy on student debt

Indebtedness due to student loans is one of the most pressing issues in higher education today. I believe strongly that we must face this issue head on, and my institution, Adrian College, has developed a plan to do that.

As the president of Adrian College, a small liberal arts college in Michigan, I believe that the education we offer our students is invaluable. We are committed to offering small class sizes with individual attention from accomplished faculty. We know that many students thrive best in smaller educational settings where they can easily get  the tutoring and personal attention they need to succeed academically.

We also believe that money and cost should not be an insurmountable barrier to receiving this type of quality education.

Here at Adrian, we have worked to contain costs and limit student indebtedness.

US News and World Report has recognized us as one of the top Regional Baccalaureate Colleges in the Midwest, and noted in 2011 and 2012 that we were in the top five colleges in the Midwest for least student debt load.

While that was good, we wanted to do more. We decided to ensure that our students are not saddled with debt they cannot repay.

In the fall of 2014, we rolled out AdrianPlus, a loan repayment initiative that includes all entering first-year and transfer students. This is our promise to our students: after graduation, if you are unable to secure a job that pays over $37,000 annually, Adrian College will help you repay all or part of your student loans.

Here are the details:

  • Students who earn less than $20,000 after graduation will have their loans reimbursed to them quarterly.
  • Students who earn between $20,000 and $37,000 will have their loans repaid proportionally to their salaries.
  • Adrian College will cover up to $70,000 in student loan repayment for each student who is eligible, at no more than $17,000 per year.
  • There is no cost to students. Adrian College pays for participation in the program.

There are a few restrictions: students must graduate from Adrian College within six years of their starting date, and they must be working at least thirty hours a week at the time their loans become due. In addition, the program covers loans certified by the Financial Aid office, but not credit card debt or loans from a student’s family.

Once a student achieves a salary of $37,000 or more, they leave the program and cannot re-enter. Students who attend graduate or professional schools after Adrian College can defer their loan payments until they are employed, and still be eligible for AdrianPlus loan repayment assistance at that time.

Why are we doing this?

In the first place, because it’s the right thing to do. Students and their families put their trust in us to prepare students to find worthy occupations and careers, and we need to own this. Nevertheless, sometimes it takes a while for graduates to get on their feet. They ought not to be crippled by loan payments while they are doing so.

Second, we believe that it is for the benefit of our society. Students should be able to choose public service occupations, jobs in helping professions, missionary work, or Teach for America, among others, after graduation, all for the public good, without fear of loan default.

Third, it’s good for Adrian College. By assuring families and students that they will not meet their debt alone, we can attract and retain students through graduation.

In addition, many of our students are first-generation college students; in the fall of 2014, 47.6% fell into that category. This is a population that might not otherwise look at a liberal arts college, despite the promise of an exemplary education. AdrianPlus helps allay the fear of loan repayment and makes us more attractive to potential students.

And finally, we believe that this program can be a model for other small liberal arts colleges across the nation. Initiatives like AdrianPlus can increase and stabilize enrollment.

We are implementing AdrianPlus through insurance known as LRAP (Loan Repayment Assistance Program). Since the 1980s, individuals have used this kind of insurance. In addition, some colleges and universities offer LRAP to students in particular fields, such as social service or ministry. Often, students pay for this themselves.

To my knowledge, we are one of the very first institutions to offer a comprehensive program at no additional cost to all students in our entering classes. The $520,000 cost to cover the 2014-2015 cohort comes directly out of the Adrian College operating budget.

Going forward, we will be gathering data on the effectiveness of AdrianPlus as a recruiting and retention tool. Within four years, our first AdrianPlus students will graduate, and at that time we will have access to data concerning how many students we are able to help and to what degree.

Although we hope that all of our students will be gainfully employed in good jobs, we also hope that a significant number of our graduates will find their way first into jobs that benefit the public good. In any event, it is our hope that students will have the freedom to choose their paths, without fear of loan default.

I would encourage other college presidents, board members, and administrators to imagine a program like AdrianPlus at their institutions. While there would be variations from school to school, the general concept of assuming some responsibility for graduates would underpin any such program.

In summary, AdrianPlus is an investment in our students, giving them the freedom to attend college without the worry of student loan debt. AdrianPlus is one creative way to approach this debt and continue to open doors for educational opportunities.

The program is much larger than Adrian College; it could be scaled to meet the needs of other higher education institutions and the issue of college affordability. We believe this program is mutually beneficial to the College and our students, whose education impacts their future contributions to employers and communities.