Higher Cost Education

Maybe we should begin inserting “cost” in between “higher” and “education” as a continual reminder of the increasing challenge paying for college poses.

On Lutheran university campuses there’s frequent talk of vocation which Frederick Buechner described this way, “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” During a “vocation” conversation last week, I listened to a colleague talk earnestly about the role discernment plays in determining one’s vocation. To “discern” something is to develop spiritual direction and understanding.

The discernment reference was shortly after another colleague shared an anecdote about a recent grad who’d returned to say he was still trying to find a job that would enable him to pay his bills. And mostly likely, tens of thousands of dollars of student debt.

Prior to that a colleague said we talk too narrowly about diversity, limiting it mostly to race, meaning important differences between economic classes are slighted. Connecting the various dots, it dawned on me that our repeated talk of vocation and discernment is a byproduct of our privilege. Discernment implies multiple possibilities in life, when an increasing percentage of college grads, like my colleague’s former student, would be content with one job that pays a livable wage.

In the 20th century, a college degree created far more opportunities than it does in the 21st. I’m afraid some of my higher ed friends and I have lost touch with people’s day-to-day realities. Naively, we talk of great joy, great need, spiritual direction, and understanding; when what many of them want is enough money to make it to graduation and the confidence they’ll find decent enough work to meet their basic needs.

 

 

 

Choosing Debt

Something’s wrong.

I just finished reading a batch of student essays about whether money is important or not and what recent social scientific research suggests about money and happiness.

Some of my students’ families struggle financially. Those students touched upon their parents’ debt and the negative consequences that have resulted from it, strained relationships marked by stress and unrelenting tension. Being well-to-do is more important to them than to my students who take their family’s financial stability for granted.

Many of these students describe the loans they decided to take out. “You have to spend money,” one explained, “to make money.” They are desperately in need of adults who model financial self discipline.

At age eighteen, they are eerily comfortable with five figure debt. And if statistics are any guide, their precarious family foundations make graduating less likely. Even if they graduate, there’s no guarantee they’ll find work that pays enough for them to dig out of their debt.

It’s great they want to continue their education, and I like having them in class, but someone has to wake them from their slumber and tell them there are much less expensive paths to getting a good education. In particular, community colleges and public universities.

Their fallacies overlap and multiply. The first is that loans are a logical solution to financial problems. The second is that attending an expensive university leads to higher paying jobs.

Universities absolve themselves of this problem, saying it’s up to the lenders themselves to assess peoples’ ability to repay loans.

I don’t know what to do. If I tell the “loaners” that there are much less expensive paths, they’ll probably conclude that I don’t think they can cut it at our pricey, private university. And if I follow my university’s lead and simply close my eyes when I know the train is about to jump the track, the students will continue down a very treacherous path.

Forego College?

Consider the recent higher ed news. Absent remediation, most high school graduates are unlikely to succeed in college. Too many college students aren’t learning much. Tuition inflation continues at a faster pace than even healthcare insurance and total student debt now exceeds credit card debt.

At the risk of simplifying things, there are two types of eighteen year olds (and people more generally): risk-averse single hitters who plan on working for someone else and entrepreneurial power hitters not afraid of starting a biz and possibly whiffing.

Neither group is inherently better than the other, but a college degree makes more sense for the first group since most livable wage paying organizations and businesses require at least one. One hopes the single hitters understand a college degree doesn’t guarantee nearly as much as it did a few decades ago. Like a miler standing stationary at the firing of a starter’s gun, they’re paying considerable money up front to increase their odds of future employment success as illustrated by this dramatic graphic.

Of course there are many intangible benefits to a good college education—such as greater independence and self understanding—but those things aren’t necessarily exclusive to those populating leafy college campuses.

Given the escalating costs of higher education and the unprecedented internet-based accessibility to knowledge and people around the world, why aren’t more ambitious, talented, smart, hardworking, risk-oriented, entrepreneurial eighteen year olds using the time right after high school to refine their knowledge and skills on their own in order to create new niches within the economy? Why isn’t there more of an Abraham Lincoln or Mark Cuban-like autodidacticism at work today?

Is it because everyone is afraid to go college-less first, or because parents fear their childrens’ short-term business failures and long-term economic vulnerability, or is something else at work?