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Community Conversations: Mark Brown on Reimagining How Students Pay for College [video]

min read

John O'Brien, EDUCAUSE President and CEO, talks with Mark Brown, Executive Director of the Student Freedom Initiative about addressing the African American economic mobility with income-contingent funding options and support services.

To hear the full conversation, listen to the podcast "Mark Brown on Increasing African American Economic Mobility"

View Transcript

Mark Brown
Executive Director
Student Freedom Foundation

John O'Brien
President & CEO
EDUCAUSE

John O'Brien: So welcome to another EDUCAUSE Community Conversation. I'm really excited today to be joined by Mark Brown, executive director of the Student Freedom Initiative. So I know a little bit about that some of what Student Freedom Initiative does is linked with this idea of an income-share approach. Do you want to just talk a little bit about that?

Mark Brown: Yeah, absolutely. You know, out of all the instruments in the student loan portfolio, the one that is most problematic, to us and to many, who look at it, is the parent PLUS loan. And the parent PLUS loan is when you've gotten all of your financial aid award packages that you are entitled to get, and you still have a requirement left to pay for your, the valid cost of college. The parent PLUS loan allows a student to have the parents sign, and then they get that loan to cover the cost. 65% of our historically black college and university students participate to some degree in the parent PLUS loans. Those loans in general, across the country, default at five times the rate of others and the debt is held two times as long. So I think as we would say in the military, we found our center of gravity. We know what the issue is. It is in a faulty instrument that's creating more debt and trouble than it's creating prosperity. And so the income-contingent alternative is what we call it, is an instrument designed initially for Stem students that are juniors and seniors in a manner that gives them more flexibility and does not require their parents' signature, especially those who are coming from fragile economic backgrounds. Here's how it works. So if you're a junior, or senior, majoring in STEM at any of the schools that we are working with, you're making satisfactory academic progress, you've gone through your financial aid award package and you still have a cost of college left. We offer up to $20,000 per academic year in an income-contingent agreement. The way that works is for every $10,000 you make above the poverty level after graduation, you would then pay it forward by paying 2.5% of that in. But so you would, the, the obvious question is where's the flexibility? Well here's the flexibility. Let's say you decide to go to graduate school. You don't pay during that period of time. It's not going to start like a promissory note where we're coming after you, no matter what you're doing. Well you're not going to pay because it's income contingent. Let's say that you decide to go to a Title I school, all you've ever wanted to do is teach chemistry at a Title I school. You want to be a teacher. They pay a whopping $28,000 a year below the poverty level of 30,000, but you still want to do that because that's where your passion is. You don't pay anything while you're in that, in that particular job. You don't pay anything until you are above the poverty level. Either way after a 20 year period, it's over. Now let's say that you do take that chemical engineering job or that electrical engineering job, and you make 70,000, $80,000 a year, and you've taken out 10 or $15,000, between your junior and senior year, you'll pay the 2.5% of your income, and you'll probably be done in six or seven years. That's, that's our point. We're able to fund those by virtue of donations made through philanthropic folks. So that's how, that's how the capital for the program works. But here's, here's another part you, you mentioned in perpetuity, or maybe I mentioned it, but somehow in perpetuity, what do we mean forever? You're not going to, we're a 501C3 organization. You're not paying us back. We don't, we don't collect any money in that regard. You're paying into what we call an endowment without walls for all HBCU students in the future. Here's the point. Endowments are endowed scholarships, and those kinds of things are how schools close the gap many times on requirements and other, for their students, as well as other school requirements. The smallest endowment at an Ivy League school that we could find is $2.9 billion, the smallest of the endowments. We looked at 70% of the available HBCU publicly published data of endowments, and some of our higher endowments, the ones that were able to get, we still did not get a total of 2.9 billion. So there is a disparity in opportunity between some schools and our HBCUs. And there are a lot of reasons why, but, but this fund that they're going to pay forward after, is going to pay back into this endowment without walls. And so long after I'm doing something else, some student at Tougaloo College down in Mississippi, who has made great progress in the areas of, of engineering or one of the sciences will be able to close the gap. And most importantly, let's end participation in the parent PLUS program. Let's stop strapping those who are economically distressed already with a loan that is obviously unaffordable.