President Gamble's comments about student debt generates heated response from students

Lex Treinen/Sun Star Reporter
November 6, 2012

The bulletin board in the Wood Center has a board for want ads, housing ads and sharing rides, allowing students to make or save money. Nov. 3, 2012. Galen Lott/ Sun Star

For UAF students who read the Alaska Dispatch, UA President Gamble might seem like an insensitive jerk.

Last week the Alaska Dispatch published an online article with comments from a UA Board of Regents meeting took place at the end of September, in which University of Alaska President Pat Gamble made several comments suggesting rising student debt is resulting from student lifestyle choices instead of rising tuition costs.

Andrew McConnell, a junior at UAA and the vice-president of USUAA attended the Board of Regents meeting called the article “one of the worst Alaska Dispatch articles I’ve ever read.”

McConnell said that the article did not reflect the tone of the meeting or the character of President Gamble, whom he called “the most student friendly President the university has had in recent memory.”

The article, published under the title “University of Alaska president blames student extravagance for their debt” on Oct. 25, provoked a lot of comments from students on social media and by emailing Gamble, according to Kate Wattum, the director of the University of Alaska’s Office of Public Affairs

Wattum said that most of the comments she has received have been negative. Many students took offense to a phrase suggested in the title of the Alaska Dispatch article-”student extravagance”-even though Wattum pointed out that the president never used those words himself.

Gamble is quoted in the article as saying that some students have “got to have a car, got to have the apartment, got to go to spring break, do all that stuff,” and  “a lot of student debt is choice.”

Wattum said that the article “took a snippet of a much larger conversation about student debt.” According to Wattum, Gamble’s comments were based on several articles describing national trends about student debt and that they were not specific to Alaska.

There are currently no statistics about how student loans are spent in Alaska, but the UAF Department of Financial Aid said that approximately 5,000 students are taking out federal, state or institutional financial aid. Numbers were unavailable about how many students take out the maximum amount. Julie Parshall, who works in the Financial Aid Office said that despite the office’s efforts at encouraging responsible spending, “once they receive the refund we have no control.” Wattum said that the average student debt in Alaska is $26,500 at the end of four years. However, at UAF the average is around $34,000 according to the Project on Student Debt, a non-profit that promotes understanding of the consequences of student debt.

Wattum also pointed out that the Dispatch article emphasized a few of the President’s comments. The main focus of the Board of Regents meeting was the 2 percent tuition increase that was the lowest in the past decade, something McConnell agreed with. McConnell said that the Faculty Alliance, the lobby group for faculty came into the meeting asking for an 11 to 12 percent tuition increase. The student delegation pushed for a lower increase, but according to McConnell, Gamble was largely responsible for the low 2 percent increase. “I really credit him for pushing it through,”McConnell said. “We were really appreciative of that.”

UAF music major Rebecca File said that she has still accumulated student debt despite working 20 to 40 hours per week while taking at least 12 credits per semester. She pointed out that even when withdrawing the maximum from federal loans, a student still falls well short of living expenses.

“If I were to subtract all tuition, books and fees from that I would have well under $10,000 left for my cost of living, that is well under the poverty line,” File wrote in an email.

Many students responded on the online comment section of the Dispatch article posting their own stories about living frugally and still accumulating debt. A student identified as Erikaedgar22 wrote “My extravagant lifestyle consists of a dry cabin, cup of soups, and getting most of my furniture at the transfer station.” Ian Matteson wrote on the on The Sun Star’s Facebook page that “I don’t have a car, I live in the dorms, and I eat at the Tilly on a meal plan. I don’t go anywhere for breaks, and my “Frivolous” expenditures are less than $100 each semester. And yet I still have sizable debt.”

Wattum said that the students who were offended by the president’s comments were probably not those who had accumulated a large debt. The UAF Department of Financial Aid estimates living expenses and tuition to be a least $18,000 for in-state students and at least $29,000 for out-of-state students, per year. According to Parshall, the maximum total lifetime limit for federal financial aid is about $31,000 for students dependent on a parent or guardian, and $57,500 for independents. Subtracting the maximum loan refund for a dependent out-of-state student from the estimated costs of 4 years at UAF would leave a debt of $85,000. However, this number does not take into account private scholarships. It also does not take into account the fact that only 11 percent of UAF students finish their degrees in four years, according to the most recent U.S. News survey.

Parshall  said that approximately 5,000 UAF students take out federal, state or institutional financial aid, which does not include non-institutional scholarships. “It’s not illegal to borrow more than you need,” she said, “but we recommend using it only on the things they absolutely need.” It is currently unclear how many students are withdrawing their maximum amounts, but McConnell said that he knows “people who do just what that article said.”

Supporters of the tuition raise point out that the costs of services accounts for three to five percent each year and that UAF still ranks as a relatively affordable option.

“The very modest increase in tuition is more important than the title of the article,” Wattum said.

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1 Response

  1. Forrest Andresen says:

    The UA system PR reps insist that President Gamble’s remarks were taken out of context. If this is the case, UA and President Gamble have an urgent responsibility to make this context unequivocally clear. We are not children. To tell us that we are missing the context is not sufficient. Students need to know what this context is so that we may evaluate the entirely of President Gamble’s statements for ourselves.

    Until such time, this answer is wholly unsatisfactory and borders on offensive.

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