One professor’s quest to end student debt
By Jamey Smith
Last year, more than 17,000 undergraduates borrowed a collective $191 million to attend The University of Texas at Austin. The average student debt of a UT bachelor’s degree recipient at graduation — including those who receive scholarship support — is about $26,000.
Recognizing the many downsides of such indebtedness, UT neuroscience professor Max Snodderly has a plan to help students obtain a degree without going into debt.
In return for receiving assistance from UT’s new Opportunity Scholars fund, which Snodderly has seeded with a $100,000 endowment, recipients will sign a promissory note pledging to give back to the fund when they are able. Over time the endowment will be able to support more students as contributions accumulate.
“I want it to be a change in culture,” Snodderly says. “The culture we have now, and it’s nationwide, is that students are expected to go into debt to get an education. I think that’s the wrong way for things to happen. It’s the wrong time of life to have to be in debt. And it’s the wrong attitude to have. So this is an attempt to see if it can be modified. I hope UT can set an example and say, ‘We can do better.’ ”
Snodderly, who researches vision and teaches a course on visual neuroscience, says that being dogged for years by interest-bearing loans places financial strain on graduates when they are establishing their career and perhaps starting a family. It also discourages them, he says, from choosing less lucrative professions that make valuable contributions to society. He observed the problem when he was on the faculty at Harvard Medical School.
“There you see physicians in training coming out really deeply in debt — hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says. “Are they going to go into an underserved area, or family practice? Probably not. It distorts our whole social fabric.”
While the ultimate goal of the endowment is to provide the opportunity of a debt-free education to all UT students receiving financial aid, emphasis will first be placed on helping those with the greatest need.
Opportunity Scholars, for their part, will be able to take full advantage of the college experience and the opportunities for personal growth it offers, including extracurricular activities. Rather than take a job off campus, they’ll be encouraged to volunteer or work on campus in ways that will complement their studies. Naturally, they’ll have to keep up their grades for continued support.
Joe Wilcox, coordinator of endowment services in UT’s Office of Student Financial Services, says more than half of all aid disbursed to students is in the form of loans, while student loan debt in America has rapidly become one of the largest forms of consumer debt, greater than credit card debt and second only to mortgages.
“At a time when two out of three students graduate with loan debt, we must seize every opportunity to lessen the burden,” he says. “The Opportunity Scholars fund provides us with the means to make a change for good.”
The initial focus of the endowment will be on undergraduates, but as the fund grows, graduate students may be included. Anybody can make an outright or endowed gift to the fund, or designate support for students in a particular area, says Wilcox. He and Snodderly worked with the University Development Office to set up a flexible framework for all types and sizes of donations. With that in place, the more funding that is received, the greater the impact will be.
For students who participate, Snodderly says, “The agreement is you get to go to college without going into debt. Your obligation is, when you get out and you’re making money, you contribute. I want that to become a cultural tradition.”