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Colleges can take steps to reduce student debt

Last month, almost every major media outlet covered the new report from the Institute for College Access and Success showing that, nationwide, average undergraduate debt increased by two percent from 2013 to 2014.

Last month, almost every major media outlet covered the new report from the Institute for College Access and Success showing that, nationwide, average undergraduate debt increased by two percent from 2013 to 2014.

The coverage was accurate, but incomplete. The reality is that some colleges have made it an educational, strategic, and financial priority to buck the student debt trend. Families should hear that story, too.

Case in point: Franklin & Marshall College has decreased the average debt for students at graduation from $33,200 in 2012 to $26,200 in 2015, a 21 percent improvement. And we expect another decrease for 2016 graduates.

F&M is not alone. Between 2012 and 2014, Bates College, New York University, and Case Western Reserve University reduced their graduating student debt levels by 23 percent, 20 percent, and 11 percent, respectively.

These examples put competitive pressure on other colleges. But this information will only get out if institutions like ours stop treating our own progress like a trade secret and instead share the specific, pro-student steps we've taken. In that spirit, here's how we cut student debt:

First, we more than doubled our budget for need-based financial aid - from $5.8 million for incoming students in 2008 to $12.3 million for new students this year.

We paid for this growth in aid by making numerous practical financial decisions rather than by looking for one sweeping fiscal change. We developed careful strategies to phase in deferred maintenance, to budget for smaller year-end margins, and to refinance debt at more favorable terms, creating more flexibility in our operating budgets.

In addition, we phased out merit scholarships - those not based on need - and directed those resources into need-based financial aid. We found efficiencies in administration, prioritized fund-raising for financial aid, and wound down spending in some areas that were less mission-critical than a strong and sustainable student aid budget. And, we've increased enrollment since 2009 by about 10 percent, thus drawing in more revenue.

Each institution will have different financial opportunities and constraints, and perhaps no two colleges will pay for debt reduction the same way. But it can be done.

Second, we made a commitment to meet the full demonstrated need of every student we admit, rather than resorting to "gapping."

Gapping occurs when institutions calculate students' financial aid eligibility and then give them less than their demonstrated financial need. It also happens when colleges fail to increase students' aid packages as the tuition climbs, a hidden form of gapping. Just 62 U.S. colleges and universities meet 100 percent of student financial need. Were more institutions to join them - private, public, and for-profit alike - student debt could plummet.

Third, we've changed our method for how we allocate financial aid, prioritizing larger grants and smaller loans.

While these steps are a bit technical, they're worth sharing to demonstrate how we have made gains: We adopted the College Board's methodology for calculating how much a family can contribute to their child's education. We adopted a policy that, for all students, the first $10,000 of financial aid in a student's package comes as a grant from the college rather than as a loan and work-study requirement. We revised our outside scholarship policy to allow third-party scholarship awards to enhance a student's aid package, rather than deducting that amount from a student's institutional aid.

Many worry that middle-income students will flock to public universities with lower sticker prices, creating a so-called "barbell effect," which is when an undergraduate community has large percentages of upper- and lower-income students and a thin band of middle-income students between them.

And yet, surprisingly, the legislatures of most states have made it harder on these price-sensitive middle-income families by cutting funding for public higher education. Take Penn State, where student debt has risen by 4.2 percent since 2013 to an average of $36,900 per graduate with debt. Who would believe that private F&M would graduate students with $11,000 less debt on average than our own state's public flagship?

Because I work at a liberal arts college, I regularly hear the argument that, in strict financial terms, borrowing any money for our style of education may be a bad deal based on graduates' future earning power. Andrea Fuller recently presented this case in the Wall Street Journal, using salary data drawn from President Obama's new College Scorecard.

The problem is that the scorecard only measures the salaries of alumni 10 years after graduation - too short a trajectory given that so many of our graduates earn advanced degrees and thus start their professional lives a little later.

When we look instead at the full arc of our graduates' careers, the story changes profoundly. Last year the Brookings Institution published a report on the mid-career earnings of alumni of 972 colleges and universities. Many liberal arts institutions performed very well, including F&M, which ranked 40th overall.

The growth rate of our graduates' average earnings from early to mid-career is even more impressive - 128 percent, compared with 82 percent for research university graduates. That's a powerful earnings premium that more than justifies modest borrowing for college.

With creative financial strategies, we can make sure that college remains a catalyzing opportunity for talented students - not a paralyzing burden - and an engine of economic competitiveness for our country.

This work begins at the colleges that have the resources today to invest in the leaders of tomorrow.

Daniel Porterfield is the president of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. @DanPorterfield