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College Debt and the Invisible Hand of Privilege

by Rick on June 19, 2012

(A version of this entry appeared in The Oregonian, June 17, 2012)

College debt is in the news these days as the class of 2012 throws their caps in the air in that springtime middle-class ritual.

But there are some dirty secrets about college-going and college debt that families need to know, especially in the wake of recent announcements about rising tuition in our state.

Over 90 percent of newly minted graduates in our nation have a loan to repay. While average undergraduate debt from a public four-year institution—$23,000—is “only” the price of a car loan, there’s a much bigger story behind that average.

One part of the story is that loans normally soak up what’s left after the already large contributions that many families struggle to make. A second part is that this average means that many students are carrying far greater debt—but don’t have job prospects that can even begin to pull them out of the holes they’re in.

But a third troubling part of the story is mysteriously absent from public and political discussion: In an eerily familiar tale, it is students from families with the least experience with college, like those with the least experience buying a home, who are saddled with unmanageable debt.

Many will say: these students should have understood what they were getting into. But like the predatory lending of the mortgage crisis, they face stiff hurdles and savvy marketing expertise.

The crisis of college debt today reflects the invisible hand of privilege in our country. It is about a generation of young people who, in an earlier era, would not have gone to college but had other opportunities. It is about a generation that has been sold the line that college is for everyone—and a set of institutions that have capitalized on it. And it reveals just how dangerous the college game is when young people and their families don’t have information or resources to play well.

Families rightly wonder whether a college degree still pays. It does. But recent evidence also suggests that the payoff is flattening.

The big problem is that families mistakenly assume that a college degree is worth it at any cost. And no one is telling them otherwise. Families must have honest conversations about four questions before they sign on the dotted line:

·     First, how likely is it that the student is going to graduate? This is a tough assessment to make in a society so devoted to political correctness and self-esteem. But nationally, nearly half will not graduate within six years of entering, and after that, their chances of finishing are slim. This startling truth is somehow out of public and political discourse. These students won’t have degrees to leverage in order to pay off the debt they accumulated before they struck out.

·     Second, what kind of earnings can the student later expect? If she wants to be at teacher, don’t take out $60,000. Debt has to be in line with anticipated earnings. Of course, many students today don’t know what they want to do; plus, they’ve been told that college is for figuring it out. But unbridled exploration is an expensive enterprise.

·     Third, where will the student thrive? Choosing a school and major that are well aligned with one’s personality, skill, and learning style go a long way toward success. Mismatches can be a recipe for disaster.

·     Finally, what are the alternatives? When it comes to institutions of higher education, the Toyota equivalent may be as good as the Mercedes if it gets you where you need to go. Students who should be in college should go to college. A crummy economy or limited family resources shouldn’t change that. But it should affect a decision about where to go.

We put blinders on about the college prospects of our youth, and not going to college is perceived as a sign of failure. So, we channel them toward college, even when we know the risks are great. We don’t give them frank advice along the way. We let them increase their debt as they struggle. And then we blame them for not making better decisions when they are burdened with debt they can’t possibly manage.

As a country, we don’t want a system in which only the brightest and best-resourced students succeed in 4-year institutions and the rest don’t. There are also viable alternatives to four-year degrees, but too few youth hear about these pathways. Many community colleges are leading the way, collaborating closely with local employers to tailor curricula to meet their job needs, to build the skills and opportunities of those students who cannot or do not want to go to four-year institutions or who need requisite coursework before they make that leap.

The bottom line is that we can’t keep duping vulnerable youth in ways that jeopardize their futures. We need to help young people and their families make careful decisions about higher education—or college debt could become this generation’s mortgage crisis as they pursue the American Dream.

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