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Colgate University President on 'taking away' federal loans for students

Brian W. Casey, Colgate University President, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss student enrollment and Colgate’s financial aid initiative.

Video Transcript

KARINA MITCHELL: Welcome back. Well, higher education institutions have been steeped in controversy over the right way to reopen their classrooms due to COVID, while dealing with a drop in applications. But Colgate University seems to have bucked that trend. Here to discuss is Brian Casey, Colgate University president. We're also joined by Yahoo Finance's Aarti Swaminathan, our education reporter. Thank you all for being here. And when you say that there is an uptick in enrollments at Colgate, you're not talking about a small uptick. The numbers are eye popping, Mr. Casey.

BRIAN W. CASEY: Yeah, we-- during the pandemic, we managed to over-- we doubled our applications. So we were up 104% from the year prior. And we're running about a third-- 33% ahead of last year, too. So things are on an upward trend.

AARTHI SWAMINATHAN: President Casey, we're actually going to get new numbers for all schools, right, from the clearing house next week. But these numbers come amid a massive sort of ramp-up among schools that are just spending and spending on marketing, because they're just trying to get more students. But is this indicative of a longer term fight for more students and longer term fight in enrollments? What are your thoughts?

BRIAN W. CASEY: You know, I think, you know, there's a huge industry to market to students to reach students to buy their names, to find out where they are. But we want to stay focused on access and affordability. So we just started with our current students. And we just started a step-up process where we remove student loans and replace them with university grants.

So we weren't spending too much time focused on national trends, but more focused on how can Colgate take loans away from students and make this place available to everybody. So it seems to-- it sure made our current students are happy but it seems to make an applicant's happy as well.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: And speaking of those applicants, Brian, I know that Colgate, along with a lot of other universities have gone test optional with the SAT and ACT because of COVID. I know your university has, at least for the students, through 2023. But was this something that was already in the works pre-pandemic? And do you see Colgate going back to using those standardized tests in the admissions process after 2023?

BRIAN W. CASEY: You know, we were preparing for a possible shift away from it. You know, we could see other institutions. University of Chicago was an early mover in this, moving away from standardized tests. So we were preparing for it. And then what happened was our entire applicant pool just didn't have access to SAT tests or ACT tests. So we moved away. And it turns out that we were able to look at other factors. We looked at students who were taking hard curriculums, students who showed curiosity.

So, we're away from it for a while for no other reason that students still can't quite get through the system. I think it's more normal this year. But I don't see us moving back for a while. And I don't see elite institutions moving back to the SAT or ACT for the short-term. I think we're all going to stay where we are for a short period.

AARTHI SWAMINATHAN: Elite institutions really set the bar, right, for other schools. But you also, I want to talk about the endowment. You have a very big endowment in the billion dollar range at Colgate. Some schools have used federal funds in their endowment to sort of address this. You just mentioned a couple of months ago college affordability. So can you talk a little bit about the Colgate commitment that you introduced and also this issue of how rich schools can help low-income students, as we're trying to get more and more of them into college?

BRIAN W. CASEY: You are-- that is such an important point. Yes, we have a $1.3 billion endowment for a relatively small school. We have very strong alumni support. So we went to our alumni and said, we want to start taking away student loans. So the first step as we went into the pandemic was to say for anyone applying and anyone at Colgate, we would take away federal loans up to 100-- for those who have-- come from incomes of $125,000 or less.

But then we went to our alumni and said, could we raise this to 150? Could we keep moving forward? But we would need to raise several million dollars, and we were able to do it very quickly. So we relied on our alumni to help make this possible, and they did it. So, you know, I think institutions, like Colgate with the resources and with alumni support, why not push that effort, put those resources toward accessibility, and changing student lives?

I mean, one of the greatest days in my life was the day we got to send out emails to all the sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and to tell them, your loans just got taken away. I mean, 600 students' lives were changed immediately. And so, I just have to thank our alumni, who produced their sources-- resources for it right away. But, you know, look, we're in a very fortunate position that we can do this. But I think any institution that can push this way really ought to. We have an obligation to the nation to do that.

KARINA MITCHELL: And President Casey, it's really commendable that your institution wants to do that. But I'm going to play devil's advocate a little bit here and ask you, how necessary is a four-year traditional college right now? I just put through two of my kids from college, and I think I'm going to be working till I'm 80 years old to pay off their student loans, unless I pass it on to them, right? So in today's day and age, in today's environment, isn't a trade school a cheaper alternative? Because at the end of the day, you know, what do we want from our students? We want them to go out and be productive and get a well-paying job, right?

BRIAN W. CASEY: Well, we want them to be that, but we also want them to be educated citizens. We want them to be contributing members of their local communities in the state. We want them to be leaders. We want them to be thoughtful people. You know, look at what's happening in the country with people arguing all the time. Don't we want to make sure that we're educating thoughtful readers, thoughtful thinkers, people who know how their government runs?

So, yes, we absolutely want Colgate graduates to be employed, trust me. Parents are very concerned about this. But boy, we also want them to be thoughtful people and people know how to think, people who know how to live with other people. So there's lots of ways you can measure the value of an education. And particularly our form of education, we teach the liberal arts. So we're explicitly not teaching them careers, but we're teaching them how to be thoughtful people in the world and empathetic people. That's what we're doing.

KARINA MITCHELL: So many more points that we'd love to discuss with you, but we are out of time. So we will have to leave it there. Brian Casey, Colgate University president, and Yahoo Finance's Aarthi Swaminathan. Thank you so much for joining us today.