College Is a Drain

Ashley Thorne

Browsing higher-ed articles this week, I was struck by a repetition of a theme: college is draining us, not helping us. 

In The Imperiled Promise of College (New York Times Sunday Review), Frank Bruni reflects that just getting into college is no longer enough to ensure a successful or even financially secure life. He notes that recent graduates are not only entering a bad economy, they're doing so without the real skills that employers seek (they're picking the wrong majors). Bruni writes:

For a long time and for a lot of us, “college” was more or less a synonym for success. We had only to go. We had only to graduate. And if we did, according to parents and high-school guidance counselors and everything we heard and everything we read, we could pretty much count on a career, just about depend on a decent income and more or less expect security. A diploma wasn’t a piece of paper. It was an amulet.

Sue Shellenbarger in Student Loans Drive Grads to Delay Marriage, Children (Wall Street Journal) observes that young people are putting off marks of adulthood such as marriage, home ownership, and starting a family because they are financially paralyzed by student loan debt:

Jokela has given up on her hopes of getting an M.B.A., starting her own interior-design firm or having children. "How could I consider having children if I can barely support myself?" she says.

Law professor and author of the popular blog Instapundit Glenn Reynolds warns in O's College Cop-Out (New York Post) that such crippling student loan debt is harming America's future:

This is bad for them and the economy, because they won’t be available to soak up the excess houses built during the housing bubble, which also was fueled by cheap government loans.

If they postpone having kids, fewer taxpayers will exist to fund Social Security and other programs in a few decades.

President Obama's talks about interest rates on Stafford loans, according to Reynolds, are a mere pose to portray him as the college student's financial advocate, when in fact, easy access to loans just means easy access to debt. The law professor advocates that student debt be reformed to be more like other debt:

What would a serious student-loan reform look like? Well, it would look more like normal loans. Students’ ability to borrow would be based on the likelihood that they’d be able to pay. Plus, loans would be dischargeable in bankruptcy if things turned out badly.

Right now, student loans are sold on the basis that “college” promotes higher earnings. But “college” isn’t an undifferentiated product. Some degrees — say in Electrical Engineering — increase earnings dramatically. Others — in, say, gender studies — not so much. A rational lender would be much more willing to finance the former than the latter.

The Center for College Affordability and Productivity's Jonathan Robe suggests (The Stafford Loan Mess) that colleges and universities should bear half (3.4%) of Stafford Loan interest rate payments, while students pay the other half. Robe notes that increasing federal financial support for higher education leads colleges to raise tuition so as not to "leave money on the table."

Today Inside Higher Ed ran a long article on "The New Politics of Student Debt" documenting the rise of a new major campaign issue. "The college students in 2008 were driven by hope and change. Those of 2012 might be motivated by fear of perpetual indebtedness," writes the author, Libby A. Nelson. 

She quotes the leader of an advocacy group called Young Invincibles, Aaron Smith:

“Young adults are even more worried about paying for college for their children than they were about paying for college themselves,” Smith says. Even those who find their own loans manageable, or who graduated without debt, have watched tuition prices rise. “Americans are going to see this as a central issue for our country.”

The Inside Higher Ed piece compares Americans' attitudes toward higher education to their attitudes toward health care. Indeed, just as Americans have come to see decent health care as a basic right, we now believe in college education as an entitlement. The same attitude shift happened with regard to home ownership, leading to the housing bubble. 

This perception that college is an entitlement is leading Americans and our government to overspend, and this drain on our economy, our social health, and our rising generations' opportunities poses real harm to this nation. The good news is that the consequences are getting hard to ignore. Let's hope the national attention to student debt, credential inflation, and underemployment help us make better choices going forward. 

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