Courtesy _PaulS_ via Flickr
There is a lot to say about the student loan situation
in the United States – so much, in fact, that sitting down to write a post about it became a labyrinthine quagmire of articles, opinions, points, counterpoints and soapboxes, the number of which are only growing due to a few recent developments.
The first part is the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is made up of many recent college graduates who left the classroom only to be stonewalled by a stagnant economy, record unemployment rates and a tough job market.
That protest can also be loosely linked to an online petition calling for a nationwide forgiveness of student loan debt in order to stimulate the economy – a petition that has already acquired the almost 450,000 signatures that it set as its goal.
And all of this political and financial unrest is bringing up some very good questions about student debts, the cost of higher education and – most importantly – what we’re going to do about both.
The down-and-dirty truth about tuition and debt
The petitioners make a valid point – student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt as the biggest financial burden individuals face (which, hey, at least we’re going into debt for the classroom instead of couture fashions), and the nationwide college debt total is poised to surpass $1 trillion in the coming months. But their guarantee that, if freed up from all these loan payments, former students will pump that money right into consumer goods and struggling economic sectors isn’t really supported by financial history. (See: Failed 2008 and 2009 stimulus packages.)
On top of that, it doesn’t really fix the overall problem. It gives a generation or two some relief from a month-to-month bill, but what about after that? What about the students currently in college or thinking about college? Where is their federal bailout?
I pay my student loans every month, and I’m not saying I wouldn’t love to have them waived and gain a few hundred extra dollars to save or spend. Still, this petition is calling for a one-time solution instead of addressing the fact that the U.S. higher education system is not adapting fast enough.
Instead, a lot of colleges and universities – public and private – are raising tuition at rates that are more than twice as fast as the rate of inflation (CNBC MoneyContol.com). Instead of streamlining, instead of education becoming modern and available to people of all income levels (which is where you would expect the country to be heading by now), the higher education system is getting bulky and fat, more preoccupied with building shiny campus amenities than getting their budgets straight and focusing on their core purpose: providing education. Salaries for college presidents are soaring, but fewer students from the bottom quarter of the income bracket are getting degrees now than they did in 1970.
Sweeping student loan forgiveness would help some people for the moment, but it’s just treating the symptoms without looking for the disease. Unless the U.S. higher education system can get back on track, the debt problems we’re facing today will be even worse for future generations.
The future of the U.S. college degree
This is where I think colleges and universities that cater to that high school crowd can learn a thing or 50 from those that are successfully developing programs for the nontraditional sector. And, likewise, traditional students would do well to absorb some lessons from adult learners.
Because the truth is that there’s a sense of perspective that the nontraditional college student has that could benefit the higher education system. So many colleges and universities are too busy covering their walls with ivy and creating an exciting atmosphere that they’re losing sight of the actual education and those who are most in need of it. Nontraditionals, though, are focused. They have goals, and they don’t need new stadium seating to get there. They just need a good classroom, a good professor and their own drive to succeed, and that’s what adult education programs are giving them. It’s efficient, effective and not distracted by excess.
Now, I’m not knocking the “college experience”– for a lot of young people, it’s an important part of their formation and growth. Still, I know there’s a middle ground in here somewhere – a place where we can meld into a better balance between atmosphere and education, where the classroom and not Greek Week is the epicenter of the campus, where we can cut the budgetary love handles that we’re developing and give the savings back to the students. Slim it down; make it cheaper to get a college education so that students from all income brackets borrow less and graduate with smaller debts to repay.
That’s, at least, the idea that they’re working on in Texas. Governor Rick Perry has challenged state education officials to create a $10,000 bachelor’s degree. That’s $10,000 that would cover four years of tuition, books, fees – the works – and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is running with it. Is it likely, should this degree get created, that a student enrolling in the program would get the full “college experience”? Probably not, but that’s not important to everyone. Some just want to learn, get a degree and take it out into the world to improve their lives. What’s wrong with that?
Nothing. It’s commendable, in fact. Isn’t this the goal that President Obama wants the country working toward? To be the one with the biggest college-educated populace; to be the land where everyone has a chance at higher education and the opportunities it offers. This isn’t the Middle Ages, after all, with the hallowed halls of universities withheld from all but the children of lords and ladies.
This is the modern era – we should be rocketing away from those days instead of stagnating. Traditional colleges and universities can’t expect to stay the course that they’ve been shuffling along for the past decades. They need to start adapting to this demanding, fast-paced world.
And they should start looking at adult education programs if they want some ideas on how to get it done.