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The University of Baltimore’s Peter Toran and UC-Santa Barbara graduate student Samir Sonti discuss UB’s plan to offer students a free final semester of tuition, and agree that federal intervention is needed to address structural causes of high student debt and low graduation rates

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

The University of Baltimore is offering a free final semester of tuition for students that graduate in four years. The program is called Finish for Free and will start for freshmen entering this fall. The estimated tuition savings for students will be $3,300 per semester for in-state students and $9,000 a semester for out-of-state students. Four-year graduation rates at the University of Baltimore are just at 8 percent, and this program is just the latest in a nationwide trend of states and colleges looking to address rising student debt, and in many cases lagging graduation rates.

Now joining us to discuss this from the University of Baltimore is Peter Toran. He’s the vice president of advancement and communications. He’s responsible for institutional strategic planning, communications, and outreach.

Thank you so much for joining us, Peter.


NOOR: So, Peter, talk about why the university launched this program and why you think it’s a good idea.

TORAN: Well, you touched upon really the two major challenges, issues, that are national challenges, and that would be student debt and, really, time-to-degree and degree completion. And so that was really an overriding objective or motivating factor for this.

But I also want to stress, as we stressed when we launched this, is that this is just one of a number of things that we’re doing to address student success, really, to support student success. And I think it’s a particularly acute–the need for this is particularly important for universities like ours, for urban, public universities, for the types of students that we serve.

NOOR: And, Peter–and talk about who your student body is, the type of students you do serve.

TORAN: Right. Obviously, if we’re the public university in the middle of Baltimore, the majority of our incoming freshmen come from either the City of Baltimore or the contiguous counties. The vast majority of our students are coming from the area of public high schools. And so to support this type of student requires a wide array of both academic and financial support services that, quite frankly, higher education across the broad spectrum has not always been good at. And we also know from demographics that through the first quarter of the 21st century, more universities are going to look like ours than look like the traditional 20th-century institutions, both in terms of demographics and in terms of the kinds of programming that we’re going to have to offer.

NOOR: And the numbers that I mentioned in the beginning, $3,300 in-state, $9,000 out-of-state, those are actually projected numbers, because your tuition will increase–I think you mentioned 3 percent each year for the next four years.

TORAN: Right, and that’s a rough estimate. That’s–listen, I want to say up front, we have been very fortunate in Maryland. We have a governor and a legislature that understands that higher education isn’t a cost, it’s an investment. And I know that sounds like a line. It’s the truth. So he’s been able to–the governor and the legislature have been able to keep tuition relatively–the increase relatively affordable. But we’re projecting that the annual rates over the last numbers of years have been around 3 percent. So we’re projecting that moving forward.

I also want to add that we require our students who would be eligible for this program also to accept any federal and state aid and scholarships that they are eligible for.

NOOR: And I also wanted to bring in Samir Sonti into the conversation. He’s a PhD student in history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, head steward for the UCC teaching assistants union, UAW Local 2865.

So, Samir, you know, I graduated from state university, and, you know, I would certainly–would have loved to not have to pay that last semester of tuition when I graduated back in 2007, especially going out into the workforce. What’s your response, and what are your thoughts about this program?

SAMIR SONTI, PHD STUDENT, HISTORY, UC-SANTA BARBARA: Well, Jaisal, first of all, thanks a lot for having me. And, you know, I appreciate the University of Baltimore’s offering us the opportunity to talk about the crisis in higher ed.

But with all due respect to Peter and to the university, I think that this program actually proceeds from some sort of troubling assumptions, and that’s that basically the problem with the dropout rate reduces to students lacking persistence or dedication to their education and that an incentive of this sort might lead them to increase their commitment to education. I don’t think that 92 percent of University of Baltimore students are dropping out because they lack persistence. I think they’re dropping out ’cause, as Peter said, you know, they come from tough backgrounds, low-income backgrounds, and college is really expensive. And both of those things have deep roots in sort of the neoliberal world that we live in. And it’s certainly not the University of Baltimore’s fault, either of those things. And I can very much understand as a cash-strapped public institution they’re trying to do what they can.

But the suggestion–I mean, most of these students, I suspect, work at least one job while they’re in school to pay their tuition and fees, to make ends meet, and just to meet the obligations that come with having grown up in a distressed city, all the personal obligations that are associated with that. And so the suggestion, the implicit suggestion that it’s a lack of persistence and that an incentive of this sort could actually structurally address this issue strikes me as a sort of a version blaming, frankly.

NOOR: Peter, what’s your response?

TORAN: Well, first of all, to clarify a few just statements of fact, some misconceptions there, UB students are not dropping out. As most of us know, students are simply taking longer to complete their degree. And as I mentioned at the outset, one of the objectives here is to support those students for whom graduating in four years is a possibility.

I also have to address, you know, it’s troubling to hear that offering the last semester of college tuition-free for a segment of students who might be able to take advantage of that is somehow blaming the victim. The logic of that escapes me.

But the real truth is, as we mentioned and as I said very much at the outset, attacking this, the problem of degree completion, time to degree, and student debt is a multivariable equation. It’s very simple to use, you know, broad brushes and simplistic answers to what is a
complex problem.

And so I think what we can agree with and do agree with is that the kinds of students that we serve have a lot of challenges. These are not spoon-fed kids who are going off for a four-year idle somewhere.

What we’re trying to address–and, again, we’re doing a lot of different things, but what we’re trying to say is, for those students for whom this is possible, we want to make that–provide that support. Maybe it means, as Samir said, that you have–you don’t have to work as much. Maybe that’s there.

We’re also–and, again, the other things that have to play into this is: how do we–using foundational and developmental education so that those students who need–and most of our students do–can get that foundational support, but also not delay time to degree?

Does this program work for everyone? Of course not. Is it something that urban college-going students should at least have the opportunity to take advantage of? We think so.

NOOR: And, Peter, Samir also raised the issue that what this program isn’t–I mean, it’s not its goal to address, but it’s something that’s not really being addressed in society overall, are the structural barriers or structural problems and inequalities that students, young people, all young people today face in graduating college, and also getting employment? What are your response to those concerns as well?

TORAN: My sense is in that area we are in complete agreement. You know, I think that the most fundamental change in American higher education happened with the G.I. Bill. And I think we need a new G.I. Bill for the 21st century that addresses a changing demographic. Just as there was a changing demographic of college-going students back then (of course, those were the veterans returning from the war), we have a changing demographic in our society now. And if we all believe that–you know, and this is going to sound a little high-minded, but that education is a bedrock of the American dream, then we’ve got to do something about it.

I would also caution us to look beneath and a little more carefully at the student debt crisis issue. We need to talk about what’s happening with the for-profits. Student default has skyrocketed among students at the for-profits. And what personally I would like to see–everyone talks about the debt that students who graduate college have to assume. What about the debt that students have who don’t finish their degree? No one seems to be studying that.

NOOR: And, Samir, so let’s get your response. Would you support or do you think there is a broad support for something like Peter suggested, a kind of new 21st-century–the G.I. Bill, a federal program that would help students go back to school? And talk about the issue of the massive student debt. I’ve heard a recent number thrown out, around $1 trillion across the country.

SONTI: Yeah, I mean, I couldn’t agree more with Peter about the need for, you know, a new G.I. Bill–I would say a G.I. Bill for all. I think the most recent numbers suggest that to pay for every single student enrolled in two- and four-year public colleges and universities across the country would cost something like 4 percent of the federal budget. The original G.I. Bill itself, which, again, as Peter noted, only applied to veterans, cost 15 percent of the federal budget in 1948. So, you know, for a fraction of what we paid for the original G.I. Bill, we can make college free for everyone. So it’s hardly fiscally impossible, right?

As far as student debt, yeah, you’re right, it’s $1 trillion now, as per the last measurements from the New York Fed. And it’s hard to imagine how this generation, given the job opportunities that are available–or unavailable–is going to pay that down, and it seems to me like a ticking time bomb.

But I also want to just respond briefly to the point about the victims. And, you know, my point here is not to suggest that the University of Baltimore is any way the perpetrator or the culprit or–to these students who are the victims. But I think the program proceeds from a logic which I think is pretty widespread that some kind of exhortation or incentive can help these students cross the finish line. And as Peter and I think–I’m sure we both agree–the problems are so deep that while this maybe will help a small percentage, it’s unlikely to affect the 92 percent–a significant percentage of the 92 percent of the University of Baltimore students that are having a hard time getting their degrees.

NOOR: Peter, we’re almost out of time, but I’ll give you a chance to respond to Samir’s statement.

TORAN: Again, I think that we have more agreement here than not.

Two quick things. Obviously, we’re doing this because we identify the student debt issue, and the trillion dollars is a big number. I don’t want to leave with the impression that college is a bad investment. Seventy-three percent of students will graduate with student debt below $25,000, less than the average price of a new car, and it’s clear that that college degree will have economic and, I hope, you know, other kinds of benefits to that student throughout their life. So I don’t want to make it sound like–you know, ’cause $1 trillion is a big number.

But, you know, we interviewed students (there were students around yesterday, even though it’s spring break) about this program, current students: what would it mean to you? And, you know, I don’t want to make this simply an emotional appeal, but, you know, one student who was really the type of student we serve said, you know, I came here as the child of a single mother. This program would really have helped motivate me. Now, would that person, that student have made it through four years? No. But I don’t think motivating students, often who don’t have this kind of support throughout their educational careers, is a bad thing in and of itself. I would love for this program to be overwhelmingly successful so that we’ve got to figure out a way to pay for it. But what it really is, as I said from the very beginning, is one piece of a myriad number of ways that we–and I’m hoping it’s the larger we–have to address–you know, let’s just call it that 21st-century G.I. Bill.

NOOR: Well, I want to thank you both for joining us. And we’ll have to hold the conversation there, but we’ll certainly follow up on these important issues in future segments. I want to thank you both. Peter Toran, he’s the University of Baltimore’s vice president of advancement and communications. I also want to thank Samir Sonti, PhD student in history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Thank you both for joining us.

SONTI: Thanks, Jaisal.

TORAN: Thank you.

NOOR: You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter. Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.

Thank you so much for joining us.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Peter Toran is vice president of advancement and communications at the University of Baltimore. He oversees the University's marketing, advertising and public relations activities, and recently facilitated the development of the University's updated strategic plan. Toran holds a bachelor's degree from Tufts University and a graduate degree from Wayne State University.

Samir Sonti is a PhD student in history at the University of California, Santa Barbara and is a head steward for the UC student-workers' union, UAW Local 2865. His writing on higher education has appeared in Jacobin, nonsite, and New Labor Forum.