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Debt-Free College: The New Democratic Mantra

By Katy Murphy, San Jose Mercury News (TNS)

SAN FRANCISCO — The aspiring app developers and entrepreneurs attending the new Make School in San Francisco don’t take out loans to cover tuition.

There is no tuition — at least up front.

Students pay 25 percent of their salaries back to the school in their first two years in the workforce, as well as internship earnings. If they don’t find a job in the tech field — or if their startup fizzles — the school gets nothing.

The two-year Make School, a highly selective startup preparing students to enter the lucrative tech sector, is hardly a typical American college. But its model, billed as “debt-free education,” reflects the collective national angst over student loans and college affordability.

It’s been decades since California abandoned its famed tuition-free promise, but as tuition nationwide spirals upward, stressing middle-income and poor families alike, “debt-free college” has suddenly gone from nostalgic fantasy to political sound bite.

“It’s moving as quickly as any recent issue that I can think of,” said Reid Setzer, policy and legislative affairs analyst for Young Invincibles, a research and advocacy group for millennials based in Washington, D.C.

The issue has crystallized as a central one in the Democratic presidential race, with Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley all calling for the federal government to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade to make college affordable.

In January, President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to unveil a plan for free community college, prompting lawmakers in nearly a dozen states to introduce legislation to that effect. In April, a group of congressional Democrats, including influential Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, went further. They introduced twin resolutions to make all public universities — not just two-year colleges — debt-free.

By August, Clinton had released her own higher-education affordability plan, complete with a $350 billion price tag.

Democrats embraced “debt-free college” after getting trounced in 2014 midterm elections and seeing how well the issue resonated with voters, political analysts say. A poll by the Progressive Change Institute in Washington, D.C., found that nearly half of Democratic voters who skipped that election “definitely” would have gone to the polls if college affordability was at stake. Out of dozens of progressive causes that might have motivated those voters, “debt-free college at all public universities” rose to the top of the list, the poll found.

The unique deal at the Make School appeals to students like Leslie Kim, 27, of San Francisco, who said she would not have gone back to school if she had to borrow to do it. Taking out loans felt like too much of a risk.

“I didn’t want to incur any debt,” she said.

And it’s no wonder: The debt burden for the average bachelor’s degree recipient rose at more than twice the pace of inflation from 2004 to 2014 — to nearly $29,000, according to a new report from the Oakland-based Institute for College Access & Success.

Under Clinton’s proposal, families would pay what they could afford for tuition, but wouldn’t have to take out a loan to cover tuition and fees. Sanders’ plan would “eliminate undergraduate tuition” at public universities, with the federal government picking up two-thirds of the tab. O’Malley’s proposal would expand Pell Grants and call on states to freeze tuition. All the Democratic candidates have also proposed allowing borrowers to refinance their loans at lower interest rates.

The GOP candidates have been noticeably silent on the subject.

“I think Republicans will get to this issue, but they’re not there yet,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents college presidents at some 1,700 institutions nationwide.

Ashu Desai, the 23-year-old co-founder of Make School, said widespread concerns about student debt and abuses in the for-profit college sector influenced his decision not to charge tuition up front. Instead, the school charges a percentage of graduates’ wages — or, alternatively, an investment in their startup — instead of a flat fee.

“If you have $100,000, $200,000 in loans,” he said, “you’re not going to be an entrepreneur.”

But one expert took issue with Make School’s claim that it offers a “debt-free education,” given that the average graduate is expected to eventually pay a total of $80,000.

“That’s exactly what a loan is,” said Sandy Baum, who has co-authored the College Board’s annual report on college-pricing trends and who has advised Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “I think that anything that disguises debt as something else is worrisome.”

Several Make School students interviewed for this story said they think the delayed payment ensures the school will give them the kind of training and mentoring they need to succeed. The first class of 32 students, most in their late teens and early 20s, will spend their two years attending lectures, interning at local companies and working on their own projects.

“I think it’s a really good model,” said Ryan Kyungheui Kim, 23, who lived in Korea, India, Idaho and Los Angeles before moving to San Francisco. “The school needs to make sure the students are doing fine so they get a good job.”

Debt-free college means different things to different people, Hartle said, but politically it has become a metaphor for college affordability. As time goes by, he added, policymakers will need to be more specific: Which students will benefit from the plans? Will private institutions be included? What strings will be attached to the federal money? And where will all the money come from?

“Talking about paying for something that could be this expensive is a real buzz kill,” Hartle said. “The cost of these programs could be frightfully expensive.”
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DEBT-FREE COLLEGE
Highlights of proposals from the three Democratic presidential candidates:

Hillary Clinton’s plan: Families would make “a realistic contribution” to tuition, but would not have to take out a loan to cover tuition and fees at public universities. The plan would also lower student loan interest rates, allow students to refinance, expand GI benefits for veterans and give federal grants to states that promise students a “no-loan guarantee.”

Cost: $350 billion over 10 years

Bernie Sanders’ plan: Would “eliminate undergraduate tuition” at public universities, with the federal government picking up two-thirds of the tab. Would expand work-study programs, set interest rates for undergraduates at 2.3 percent and allow borrowers to refinance.

Cost: $750 billion over 10 years

Martin O’Malley’s plan: Would set a “national goal” for students to graduate from any public university, debt free, encouraging states to freeze tuition. Would expand federal Pell Grants to help students with non-tuition expenses and allow borrowers to refinance.

Cost: $400 billion over 10 years

Photo: Leslie Kim, 27, originally from the Washington, D.C., area, works on computer coding at Make School, a new two-year “college replacement” program for aspiring app developers and entrepreneurs on Oct. 26, 2015, in San Francisco. Students pay nothing up front for their education, but agree to pay a percentage of their salary for the first two years after graduating. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

Corinthian College Students Sort Through Confusion, Bureaucracy After Company’s Fall

By Katy Murphy, San Jose Mercury News (TNS)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Six months after the unprecedented demise of a career-college giant mired in allegations of fraud and deception, thousands of former Corinthian College students are still sorting through the mess they were left with in April when the last 28 of the company’s high-priced schools — most of them in California — closed.

The Corinthian story drew widespread media attention and calls from political leaders to help those who had been exploited by the for-profit, Santa Ana-based chain. But instead of relief for loans that can run to tens of thousands of dollars, many have found little but confusion and bureaucracy. And this month California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that sought to help former Corinthian students weigh their options through expanded legal assistance programs.

Consider this: Despite an extraordinary step by the U.S. Department of Education this summer to make some 40,000 Heald College students enrolled as far back as 2010 eligible for student loan forgiveness through a much-simplified process, less than one-sixth had filed such claims by mid-October, according to preliminary figures and estimates from the department.

It’s not surprising to Tiffany Johnson, a former Heald student who said she has watched her fellow classmates sort through the myths and misinformation, agonizing over what to do — whether to transfer their credits, for instance, or to apply for a federal loan discharge and start over.

“My heart really goes out to them because they don’t know where to go for help — and it’s really sad,” said Johnson, of San Bruno, who attended Heald College’s medical assisting programs in San Francisco and Hayward before the doors slammed shut.

Johnson, who was just six months from earning a degree, said she struggled on her own for about two months before she was referred to a legal assistance center in the East Bay through a Facebook page created earlier this year by former Corinthian students. The law clinic helped her file a claim with the Department of Education, she said, and it was approved over the summer. Her federal student loan debt — all $36,000 of it — was wiped clean, she said.

But with the sheer numbers of former Corinthian students — nationally, about 15,000 were enrolled around the time the colleges closed, and 350,000 have borrowed to attend a Corinthian school since 2010 and may be eligible for some form of relief, given the company’s documented abuses — there isn’t enough help to go around, advocates say.

“The capacity of legal aid in California is completely stretched thin because of the Corinthian closures,” said Angela Perry, a law fellow at the nonprofit Public Advocates firm in San Francisco.

In his veto message, Brown said he was sympathetic to the struggles of Corinthian students but argued it was “premature” to expand legal aid services for them, given the federal government’s attention to their plight.

“The U.S. Department of Education has taken the matter of loan discharge seriously,” he wrote. “In recent months, it has greatly eased the burden of filings for many students, and its work to provide a simple, swift and fair process for students continues.”

Part of the confusion stems from a little-used provision of federal law that allows students to apply for debt relief if they believe they were victims of fraud. Students generally apply for loan forgiveness only when their school closes before they have been able to graduate.

But this summer, under pressure from California Attorney General Kamala Harris and others, the Department of Education created a special claim form for students who as far back as 2010 attended Heald programs it found to have inflated job-placement numbers — about 80 percent of all of the chain’s offerings.

Roughly 6,100 such claims had been filed as of mid-October compared with only a handful in the past, according to the department. Still, the department has estimated that roughly 40,000 former Heald students alone were defrauded because of their programs’ phony job placement rates and are eligible for the relief.

Roman Rojas, of Richmond, is one of them. But the former Heald information technology student — who now attends Ohlone College in Fremont — opted not to apply for loan forgiveness, fearing the move would wipe out his course credits.

“I asked around a lot, and people weren’t giving me straight answers, so I didn’t want to jeopardize that,” he said. “It’s so confusing.”

There is no indication that students would risk losing their course credits by applying for any form of debt relief, said Noah Zinner, a senior attorney with Housing and Economic Rights Advocates, based in Oakland.

The catch, he said, is that students who transfer even one credit to a new college lose their eligibility for a “closed school” loan discharge. On the other hand, he said, transfer students might still be eligible for relief if they prove they were defrauded by their school.

And those who apply for debt forgiveness can have their student loan bills put on hold while they wait — through another process. This is why legal aid centers are so overwhelmed.

Johnson, the former Heald student, made it through those hoops and recently registered for an allied health program at Skyline College, a community college in San Bruno.

She has to start over, she said, but, “It’s nice to not have the debt and to not have to worry about getting a job with a useless degree.”
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BY THE NUMBERS
350,000: The number of students who took out federal student loans totaling $3.5 billion to attend a Corinthian-owned college since 2010
40,000: The estimated number eligible for student loan debt relief because they were once enrolled in a Heald College program that the U.S. Department of Education found to have misled students about its job prospects
15,000: The number of students eligible for debt relief because they attended a Corinthian school that closed before or shortly after they were able to finish their programs
Source: U.S. Department of Education

Photo: Corinthian College, which no longer exists. Via Wikipedia.

UC Berkeley Defends Handling Of Sex Harassment Claims Against Professor

By Katy Murphy, The Oakland Tribune (TNS)

BERKELEY, Calif. — As fury grows over reports that astronomer Geoff Marcy sexually harassed female students for years, the University of California, Berkeley, Monday defended how it has handled complaints against the professor.

The claims surfaced late last week when BuzzFeed published a story on a confidential university investigation that concluded in June and resulted in a warning. According to BuzzFeed, four students complained that they had been subject to unwanted advances, including kisses, groping and massages. It reported that the harassment was an open secret among astronomers.

“The university has imposed real consequences on Professor Geoff Marcy by establishing a zero-tolerance policy regarding future behavior and by stripping him of the procedural protections that all other faculty members enjoy before he can be subject to discipline up to and including termination,” the university said in a statement.

But students are livid that the professor received what they see as a mere warning for his past behavior as part of an agreement reached with the university’s vice provost for the faculty.

“I think it says that the faculty does not truly care about sexual assault and harassment against its students and care more about our academic reputation,” said Meghan Warner, a senior and a student representative to a University of California task force on sexual violence.

Marcy, a professor at Berkeley since 1999, was considered in the running for a Nobel Prize for his discovery and study of large planets outside of our solar system. He did not respond to a request for comment, but posted an open apology letter on his faculty page last week, shortly before BuzzFeed — which obtained the confidential report — broke the story.

“While I do not agree with each complaint that was made, it is clear that my behavior was unwelcomed by some women,” Marcy wrote. “I take full responsibility and hold myself completely accountable for my actions and the impact they had. For that and to the women affected, I sincerely apologize.”

The incidents are believed to have occurred between 2001 and 2010 with students who have since graduated; the university first received the complaints in July 2014, said campus spokeswoman Janet Gilmore.

Faculty have more protections than students who are accused of violating campus policies, and they undergo a sanctioning process that includes a hearing before their peers. The university administration cannot unilaterally fire a professor, for example, while it can expel a student.

The university concluded that setting “clear behavioral standards” for Marcy on his interactions with students, along with the waiving of those protections, “was the most certain and effective option for preventing any inappropriate future conduct,” it said.

But the problem is greater than this one high-profile professor, Warner said. Graduate students who are harassed by faculty, she said, often fear that reporting the problem will end their careers.

“It’s been a real problem for graduate students, and it’s something activists haven’t addressed nearly enough,” she said.

Photo: Dr. Geoff Marcy, an astronomer at UC Berkeley, was identified in a Buzzfeed report as sexually harassing students. Rafael Perrino/Flickr

San Jose State Students Report Major Discovery In Space

By Katy Murphy, San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — A San Jose State undergrad grieving the loss of his mother shifted his gaze to outer space and made what could prove to be a remarkable discovery: a system of stars so dense, his professor said, astronomy has no word for it.

In only a week 21-year-old Michael Sandoval stumbled upon what he and his professor have named a hypercompact cluster, which they argue is the intensely starry remains of one galaxy that has been consumed by another.

Astrophysics professor Aaron Romanowsky said it’s astounding how quickly his student may have discovered what “some people take years and never find.”

The stellar search was a welcome diversion for Sandoval, whose mother, Holly Houser, died of cancer in October. In the last years of his mom’s life, the physics major lived at home, juggling her care with his education, sometimes rushing her to the emergency room at night and dragging himself to class the next day from Fremont.

Months later, enrolled in his first astrophysics course, he learned classmate Richard Vo had discovered an unusual stellar object — possibly the densest ever found.

His reaction was immediate: “I want to find one too.”

With free, publicly available data from the Hubble Space Telescope archive and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, Sandoval set to work on his laptop, combing the universe using some of Vo’s research methods. “I didn’t want to be sitting home, feeling sorry for myself,” said Sandoval, the younger of two brothers who both took care of their mother after her diagnosis. “That’s not what she would have wanted anyway.”

Instead, he and Vo are rushing to publish their findings with Romanowsky, a temporary staff researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz before joining the San Jose State faculty in 2012.

Romanowsky was on a team of astronomers from a number of universities that was among the first to discover a dense galaxy like the one Vo found: an ultracompact dwarf galaxy. They published their findings in The Astrophysical Journal in September.

But Sandoval’s search for a similar object turned up something “weird,” Romanowsky said, unlike anything he had seen.

If a dwarf galaxy is like an apple core, Romanowsky said, what Sandoval found is like the seeds.

They are keeping the names and locations of both findings secret until they have been published.

Their discoveries, though yet to be reviewed by other scientists, reveal what’s possible today in undergraduate science education, particularly at teaching universities like San Jose State that don’t have fancy equipment or massive research budgets, Romanowsky said.

One reason a pair of undergraduates might have pulled off this feat is that until recently, astronomers simply weren’t looking for these dense stellar systems.

“It’s something that’s been hiding in plain sight,” Romanowsky said.

If verified, their research could lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe — and of the black holes within galaxies, which have a gravitational pull so powerful they are thought to trap light, making them difficult to spot.

Both students were so passionate about the project, Romanowsky said, that they were pushing him, not the other way around. “They’re sending me emails at midnight: ‘Professor, will you send me more data?’ ” he said.

Experiences like theirs could bring more students into the sciences, said Natalie Batalha, a research astronomer at NASA Ames Research Center. Glimpsing something no human has ever seen feels like “all the mysteries of the universe are right there for us to discover,” she said.

“Not very many young people are choosing to pursue scientific careers,” she added, “and I wonder how much of that is because of stereotypes and a poor understanding of what it means to be a scientist.”

Between his forearm tattoos and outspoken, boyish sense of humor, Vo certainly shatters the boring-scientist stereotype. Recalling the start of his research project, he described the task ahead of him then as “basically finding Waldo.”

The youngest of 10 children of Vietnamese immigrants, Vo graduated from San Jose State on Saturday with a physics degree. He hopes to continue his research at San Francisco State.

Sandoval’s foray into astronomy makes him think of his mom. It always embarrassed him when she bragged about his physics studies, he said, because he felt he had done nothing special.

“After this has happened,” he said, “I’m pretty sure she’s proud.”

Photo via Flickr