College isn't for everyone
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Beth Cody, Writers' Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen

May is graduation month, and parents are proud to see their high school students wearing caps and gowns.

Nearly 70% of graduates will go on to attend college, but many people are starting to question the value of a college degree, due to:

1. The rising cost of college. College tuition has risen by more than four times the rate of inflation since the mid-1980s, largely due to the availability of government-guaranteed student loans, which have enabled colleges to charge more.

This is how the housing bubble was engineered: government made it easy to borrow large amounts of money, regardless of ability to repay, resulting in rapid appreciation of housing costs. We are clearly in an education bubble, perhaps near the bursting point.

Students, parents and guidance counselors seem to have little concept of the total costs of college – not just the direct costs, but also the opportunity costs of delaying entrance into the work force, probably another $100,000.

Does the income premium earned by college graduates justify these escalating costs? Perhaps in engineering, mathematics or computer science. But liberal arts graduates are now a-dime-a-dozen, with annual starting salaries of around $30,000. This is unsustainable.

2. Large student debts. The average college graduate now leaves school with about $25,000 in student debt. For the first time ever, total college debt now exceeds total credit card debt.

These debts are unlike most others: they cannot be discharged with bankruptcy. This is undoubtedly intended to make lending institutions willing to lend to asset-poor students.

But students who are chained for life to $50,000 or more in student debt and have only a marginally-employable degree to show for it are in real trouble. (A third of college graduates take jobs that do not require a college degree.)

Although there are income-based programs for low-income borrowers, these only stretch out repayment periods for the rest of their working lives, resulting in much higher interest costs and endless payments.

There is not nearly enough national alarm over the college debt trap.

3. Low college graduation rates. The debt problem is only compounded by the fact that
only 55% of college students will graduate within six years. These students might not have as much debt as graduates, but they have no degree to show for that debt.

4. The watered-down quality of education. Many people argue that there is an intrinsic value to liberal arts education over and above job training. This would undoubtedly be true if educational quality had been maintained over the past half century.

However, academic rigor has clearly suffered as college attendance has risen, with few students being challenged to serious scholarship. Students spend half as much time studying and far more time socializing than several decades ago.

So what is the answer?

1. Many less academically-inclined students would be better off learning a profitable trade, avoiding crushing debts and earning more over their lifetimes. As more students voluntarily avoid college, their life successes will demonstrate that college is not necessary for well-paid and respected occupations.

2. Those of serious academic aptitude should not be ashamed to choose a college based on cost. Among falling standards, it is the only smart thing to do, and will help drive down costs for everyone. Equally, students should avoid irrevocable debts like the plague.

3. Government should end guaranteed student loan programs. They are primarily responsible for rising tuition, crushing debt burdens, the overselling of college and the growth of college attendance that has led to the "dumbing down" of content and the ubiquitousness (and lowered value) of college degrees.

Encouraging college attendance seems like a noble goal, but it is actually hurting, not helping students.