Monday, June 11, 2012

Resolving the College Debt- Benefit Issue

A relatively new meme which appears to have attained ever greater traction in recent months hinges on the question: 'Is Going to College Today Really Worth It?' (which in fact was also the header for a lead story in The Sunday Denver Post Perspective Section yesterday - with two points of view being voiced - one by 6th grade science teacher Eva Syrovy, and another by Journalism senior Alyssa Hurst ('Loans are a Necessary Evil').

I also have blogged on this before, querying whether today's college students are really getting their money's worth, e.g.

In her piece, Eva Syrovy takes the pragmatic view that too many American kids are blinded by fantasy hopes and dreams. She refers to her 6th grade class, and notes that when asked about their post-high school plans one gets a single answer: college. This, despite the fact, according to Syrovy (who teaches in Colorado Springs):

"To say they come from humble backgrounds may be optimistic. We're a Title I school, so 70% or more of our students qualify for free or reduced price school lunch. The single parents, grandparents and other adults who raise many of our kids often work nights and weekends at jobs that pay just over minimum wage."

She then goes on to note that in Europe (she's clearly a transplanted European, likely Russian or Ukrainian) similar kids "wouldn't be dreaming of college". Instead they'd be looking at "lives of hard work" or in the trades. But in the U.S. vocational and trade school options have essentially collapsed.

Syrovy then cites the usual stats including that "conservative estimates place college loan debt at $610 b, outpacing credit card debt". Also that "a minimum of 39 percent of new college graduates are moving back in with their parents so they can pay that debt back."

These are disturbing trends but perhaps not as disturbing as an (inset) letter - referring to the same issues- written by a Kirk Harris,  who "works in higher education" noting that "Students take out huge loans but never finish the degree they are working on".   Indeed, it is estimated that some 40 % of college enrollees drop out  by the end of the second year and never complete a degree though saddled with debt.

If one had to describe a top lose-lose financial proposition, this has to be it.

Meanwhile Alyssa Hurst writes:

"I would feel less overwhlemed by my debt (she has $35,000 so far and counting) if I wasn't facing such an unforgiving job market"

This again, brings up the core issue of determining whether one ought to attend college at all. Yes, obviously as Ms. Hurst notes, loans are a "necessary evil" - but to what end? Some, of course, like my great niece Shayle - have zero problems. Shayle obtained two different full ride scholarships to Clarke University in Worcester, MA, and has just completed her B.Sc. in Psychology owing nada, and has since been accepted for a fully paid scholarship and research assistantship to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. By all reckoning she will complete her Ph.D. owing nothing, before commencing a lucrative career in psychotherapy. Or so she expects. . But those like Shayle you can count on one hand...okay....maybe two.

The rest have to plumb for student loans to pay their way, and these costs can be formidable. So...the question is: Is it worth it to go into considerable debt on the offhand chance one will find a job good enough to pay off that debt without going into old age?

The answer, as I've noted before, is 'NO' if the college experience is viewed exclusively in terms of being a permanent meal ticket to the "good life"  in the material sense.  So I return again to the excellent insight into this provided by Dr. Steve Mason in his October, 2010 Integra (Journal of Intertel) article, 'The Myth of Higher Education' , noting the huge error of American education is orientating it explicitly for the utilitarian purpose of making money or getting a job. As he writes:

"the bottom line regarding a well -rounded education is that it has nothing to do with any kind of bottom line. Its value (non-monetary) is to be found in the quality it adds to one's life. It allows one to better appreciate music, art, history and literature. It contributes to a better understanding of language and culture, nature and philosophy. It expands rather than limits horizons and replaces faith and belief with reason and logic"

Mason adds that it "teaches a person to live - not to earn a living" and that living encompasses an impetus for further learning just for its own sake. If a fantastic, well-paying job also comes with it, that's icing on the cake.

An opinion with which I fully agree. As Exhibit A, I refer to another large article in our local press('Graduating with Jitters', p. D1, Colorado Springs Gazette) where reference is made to a 41-year old who decided to go back to finish college. His experience in his own words, and the transforming effects on him:

" I talk more intelligently. I think more intelligently. You just look at things differently. You just really appreciate things you didn't know about before."

And these, I warrant, are elements and benefits no one can put a price on.

So, yes, GO to college and take on the debt IF transforming your basis of thought and appreciation for things intellectual is where it's at and the amassed debt is worth that non-material benefit  for you.

If not, maybe find some alternative or trade, or even community college, because there's no absolute assurance of finding some terrific job merely because you have earned some letters after your name!

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