A lot of tears have been shed, and stories written about sixteen-year old, Kristel Tejada, a freshman college student who took her own life after failing to pay her tuition. Many have questioned and criticized the administration of University of the Philippines Manila for their alleged callous handling of Kristel’s request to be able to pay the school much later than called for. Her father reiterated Kristel’s request, asking for a month’s extention so that the money for his daughter’s semestral fees could be raised.
UP Manila chancellor Manuel Agulto said at a press briefing: “Our compassion has been questioned a lot in the media. We have been portrayed as cold-hearted and ruthless.” He tearfully recalled his own financial struggles as an “Iskolar ng Bayan” student of medicine. “UP Manila did what it could,” he said, adding that he would have personally found a way to help Kristel had he been aware of her situation. Sentiment aside, a more institutional approach is needed to deter more tragic stories from landing on UP Manila’s doorsteps.
As a mother, I felt so sad that a young girl eager to study was not able to, because tuition fee obligations fell short of what her parents could afford. Her father is a taxi driver. Her mother has her hands full with five kids to look after. Kristel was the eldest among them. That she decided to take her own life by drinking a cleaning solution manifests the depths of her desperation, the degree by which she felt helpless in the sea of life.
I look back at my own struggles as a single parent trying to raise my daughter, Estelle, through the highs and lows of student life. There were semesters that tuition fees were mountains to climb, and I can only sigh with relief that those mountaineering days are over. My daughter was able to graduate from De La Salle University, an alma mater that she dearly loves, with a degree in Political Science.
Though the University of the Philippines has lifted its policy on late tuition fee payments, stories about students like Kristel are not confined to the country’s most distinguished state university alone. We need to revive the Study Now, Pay Later program (SNPL) that dates back to the days when Ninoy Aquino was in the Senate to help poor students cope with rising tuition fees.
Unfortunately, according to the Commission on Audit, the track record in terms of repayment of student loans was too dismal. Based on news reports, the COA reported that out of the P36.15 million in loans extended under the Study Now-Pay Later program, less than 1% has been collected from the following regional offices: National Capital Region (NCR), Western Mindanao (Region 9), Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon (Region 4A); Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon, Palawan (Region 4B) and Caraga Region (Region 13).
Why punish students for CHED’s inability to collect from previous beneficiaries? Under the SNPL program, student loans are payable in two years after graduation – perhaps a time frame too short considering our high unemployment and underemployment rates.
Can the government utilize the Social Security System (SSS) and the Government Service and Insurance System (GSIS) as repayment centers since these college graduates will likely enroll in either systems upon entering the workforce? Can educational institutions provide counseling or at least offer it to working students and scholars who are under extreme pressure to survive each and every semester? How about a law enabling government institutions to take in scholars for part-time paid internships and not just for the summer season?
In the United States, nearly every college student has a student loan to pay. Even while I was studying public administration at the Kennedy School of Government in Harvard University, I had American classmates that obtained student loans that made their entry to the Ivy League institution possible. This is why American students are able to map out their career paths in a fearless fashion. A cab driver’s child has the same equal chances of making it through school as a millionaire’s bratty kid – thanks to student loans.
Other government institutions offering scholarships to the poor such as the Department of Science and Technology and even the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration specifically for children of migrant workers, should be similarly inspired to rethink their policies and look for ways to cover more students, with less red tape, and under even more compassionate schemes.
We cannot afford to lose more students to the seduction of a quick, self-delivered end to life. Perhaps to blame UP Manila for Kristel’s suicide is unfair and simplistic. No one knows the depths of her sorrows or the dark emotional shadows that pushed her to death’s corner. We can only pray for her young soul, and for her parents and siblings, deep in mourning. For them, the pain shall never go away.
But yes, debates about tuition fee hikes, delayed payments, and budget cutbacks for state universities must lead to a package of reforms aimed at making our schools not only as bastions of learnings but also havens of compassion. We owe Kristel that much. (Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org)