Opinion | Op-eds

Double-edged coin

Good news, everyone! The Associated Press has reported that Ivy League students shouldn’t worry too much about the potential debt they might accrue getting their prestigious education. But let’s talk about the actual “reporting” that was done by Philip Elliott and how many things he gets patently wrong about how (un)affordable an Ivy League education is. 

Elliott, for the majority of the article, points to Princeton University—whose graduates with loans leave the school, on average, a little more than $5,000 in debt—as an example of a trend that I’m convinced he has invented.

Essentially, Elliott argues, “For high school students considering their options, a potential college’s endowment might prove more important than the recreation center or even the published price tag,” since schools with larger endowments are able to provide better financial aid. And while this isn’t technically untrue—at Columbia, about 50 percent of students receive financial aid—Elliott’s flaw is seeing these numbers and assuming them to be the norm. Even in the Ivy League, such low student debt is rather uncommon.

First of all, Elliott’s model is the US News and World Report’s number one ranked college, which has an endowment of $17 billion—the third largest in the Ivy League. Comparing the Princeton figures to the median student loan debt among Columbia graduates, which the Wall Street Journal reported in February to be $12,500, you get quite a different picture of debt—especially when Columbia’s financial aid website says that students aren’t expected to have to borrow any money to pay for their education.

Another issue I have with Elliott’s “reporting” is that he doesn’t even mention the (perhaps too-obvious-to-mention) fact that averages encompass both extremes of the spectrum of borrowing. I mean, every single person on financial aid at Columbia could borrow $12,500 for the average to be $12,500. 

But even Elliott’s faulty numbers aren’t as upsetting as his assumption that a school’s financial aid solves the problem of paying for school. Even when the financial aid office knocks the cost of attendance to, say, $13,000, that’s still $13,000 more than many families just have lying around (thank God for payment plans, I suppose). But Elliott’s figures, which rely on US News and World Report statistics, also don’t take into account the debt that parents amass to pay for their children’s education. Even if a student’s parents are borrowing $12,000 a year, that could amount to $48,000 of debt after four years, even if the student only had to borrow $1,000 to fill in the difference.

On a certain level, I can see Elliott’s argument. But that doesn’t mean that it’s sound, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I agree with it. As someone who has taken out federal and private loans to pay for Columbia, I will say, even though the excellent financial aid the school gives me is the reason I can attend in the first place, that doesn’t translate to little debt—at least not for me. Obviously, it would be incredibly difficult to examine each individual case—that’s why averages and medians exist. My issue, I suppose, is really with Elliott’s reporting.

First of all, he reports from Washington, D.C.—where there aren’t actually any Ivy League schools. This translates to not having any quotes from actual Ivy League students. Instead, Elliott quotes a former White House employee… and nobody else. I may not work for the Associated Press, but I know, as any amateur journalist would, that a single quote in the article—though it may fit conveniently into a narrative you would like to create—isn’t where you should stop.

But what do I know? I mean, the Associated Press is a reliable news organization—though in this case more in the sense that the people who killed Julius Caesar were honorable men.

I might run a humor newspaper, but we usually explore both sides of a fake issue in our articles. I just sometimes wish that kind of nuance and sensitivity was applied to real issues by legitimate reporters. 

The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in American studies. He is the editor in chief of The Federalist and a deputy arts and entertainment editor for Spectator.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.


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GS'14 posted on

You might find a lot more problems with Elliot's logic if you recognize that GS is part of Columbia, and that your fellow classmates there take out a huge amount of student loans. We might be equals in the classroom, but we are definitely not in the world of student financial aid.