Addressing Student Debt Through Philanthropy

Addressing Student Debt Through Philanthropy

In an age of mega-donors and flashy facilities, higher education philanthropy increasingly is about bigness. Philanthropists and foundations scramble to put their names on buildings, endow chairs in popular departments, and fund the next scientific breakthrough.

Investing in higher education often is a great use of philanthropic dollars. But high-dollar gifts aren't the only big figures in higher education. These days, too many college students are burdened by the millstone of unconscionable debt. Indeed, as we begin a new decade, cumulative student debt in the United States has reached $1.6 trillion.

And debt is not the only financial challenge college students face. Once you factor in the supplementary or "incidental" costs of attending college, today's college students face a kind of death by a thousand cuts. Textbook costs are up 87 percent since 2006 — more than any other college-related expense. The cost of essentials like laptops, transportation, and living expenses often outstrip students' ability to meet them. Students are encouraged to prepare for the real world after graduation by taking low- or unpaid summer internships — another expense many simply cannot afford. As higher ed technology and course software changes, the costs add up.

Expenses like these are no big deal for students from affluent backgrounds, but for those from low- and middle-income families, and especially for first-generation students, they can be a major obstacle to college completion.

Recently I made a gift to my alma mater, Ursinus College, targeting what I see as an urgent issue within higher education. Tucked away in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, Ursinus has been educating students for a hundred and fifty years, preparing them for careers in business, civic life, service, the arts, and sciences. The liberal arts model is alive and well at Ursinus, but it is not immune to the cost-creep affecting higher education nationwide.

The gift will be used to expand Ursinus's Abele Scholars program, which is open to promising students from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. The program provides each young scholar with $53,000 in funding to cover tuition, provide debt relief, and, more specifically, help them deal with the barrage of incidental expenses they will encounter over their college career. Abele Scholars do not have to worry about $200 textbooks. They start school with a brand-new laptop. They can accept a summer internship, however little it  pays, with the same confidence as their peers from wealthier backgrounds.

Taking care of these expenses allows Abele Scholars to use their time and energy to build their social capital and form professional connections, which are just as valuable upon graduation as academic experience.

At a time where nearly every avenue of American life has become more expensive, we have to do something about the cost of college — not only in the months and years after students graduate, but throughout the entire college experience. I hope my gift challenges and encourages other alumni to think about the costs today's college students face, to donate to their alma maters in a similar fashion, and, more generally, to think creatively about how they can pay forward the rewards they have received from their own education.

Will Abele is a 1961 graduate of Ursinus College, a member of the college's board of trustees, and chairman of the Abele Family Foundation. Before retiring, Abele was the owner and president of Henry Troemner LLC, a manufacturer of precision weights and laboratory equipment. Through his foundation, he and wife Joan gave $11 million — the largest gift in the school's history — in January in support of the Abele Scholars Program, which they established with an earlier gift in 2018.