NYU Looks for a New Approach to Help Families Understand Student-Loan Debt

June 07, 2010

After a one-year experiment in reaching out to families about student debt, New York University has discontinued the practice of calling prospective students and their parents to discuss the debt they could incur by attending. The university made 1,800 such calls last year to about a quarter of accepted students who qualified for financial aid, but the outreach had no effect on the rates of accepted students who decided to enroll.

Still, the university is grappling with how to communicate the message that NYU, one of the most expensive colleges in the country, may not be the right financial fit for everyone. The university, whose tuition, fees, room, and board are more than $50,000 a year, has more students and a smaller endowment than many similarly selective universities, so it cannot provide as much scholarship and grant aid.

Randall C. Deike, the university's vice president for enrollment management, says administrators are now discussing how to make sure families understand that NYU is a significant investment and that students and parents need to think early in the application process about how they would finance that investment over four or five years. Mr. Deike believes the message needs to reach all applicants (rather than a select group, as the phone calls did) and start earlier than when students receive their acceptance letters and financial-aid offers.

The debate about the cost of NYU and the debt some take on to attend the Manhattan institution has played out in public in the last few weeks. A columnist for The New York Times wrote a story about the almost-$100,000 debt of a young graduate and said NYU bore some of the blame for not counseling her and her family more. The column received 670 comments, which ranged from criticism of the graduate and the university to sympathy for her situation and that of other young adults in the same position.

Mr. Deike doesn't believe that NYU is responsible for providing personal financial advice to families who send students there. He prefers more general financial education.

"From a financial literacy standpoint regarding financial aid, there's more we can do and more we're going to do," Mr. Deike says.

The university is still deciding how it will present that message. In this past admissions cycle, counselors were given the OK to communicate the message that families need to carefully consider the financial aspect of choosing a college. If NYU could not meet a family's need and a student had better grant and scholarship offers from other institutions, the counselors could encourage them to weigh the different offers.

Mr. Deike, who began his college career with an associate degree, says he told some students over e-mail to consider starting at a less-expensive institution and then transferring to NYU if they could not afford to start there.

"Not being able to attend your first choice college ... [is] not the end of the world," he says. "You can still have a productive life and career."