Dear University Bound Grandchild (and their parents)
I came across this stunning (to me) statistic in Forbes magazine recently that stated “Student loan debt is now the second highest consumer debt category – behind only mortgage debt – and higher than both credit cards and auto loans.
According to Make Lemonade, there are more than 44 million borrowers with $1.3 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S. alone. The average student in the Class of 2016 has $37,172 in student loan debt.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackfriedman/2017/02/21/student-loan-debt-statistics-2017/#5f01876e5dab. Of those 44 million borrowers, almost 4 million have a debt of over $75,000.
At almost the same time, my daughter and I were discussing university plans for my three grandchildren and how she and her husband were going to afford to send them on to university without incurring a large debt for the children or for themselves. These two things got me thinking about what I used to tell my Introductory Psychology students each semester in my opening lecture. I always asked the question “are you sure you want to be pursuing a college education and all the debt and time that entails?” I have long been an advocate of the philosophy that a university degree is not for everyone and certainly not necessarily tied to financial success or to job satisfaction.
While I am a very happy beneficiary of a college degree and post graduate studies and the many doors they opened for me, I wonder if we, as a society, are guilty of putting forth an attitude that says that if one does not have a college degree; one has somehow fallen just a little short in life. A philosophy that subtly teaches that the so called “blue collar” occupations such as registered nurse, x-ray technician, beautician, plumber, electrician, mechanic, etc. are somehow just a little lower than those that require graduate degrees such as physician, attorney, and college professor.
If this is true on even a small scale, does this undercurrent of over valuing a university degree mean that we have or will saddle our grandchildren with such a debt burden that they may never be able to afford a home before they are 50 years of age? Does it mean that when a graduating student finds that his or her degree in some of the humanities and other fields have a slim or nonexistent chance providing a career in that field? But at the same see them time finding that that the debt incurred earning that degree is growing each year as interest accrues and that those student loans, like IRS debts, are unable to be expunged by declaring bankruptcy or in any other way.
Certainly we all are keenly aware of the financial benefits of acquiring a skilled trade. Just remember what the last bill was from the plumber or electrician that came to your home to attend to a problem. I have long been an advocate of the type of secondary school system that identifies those students that have little or no interest in university and providing a track in which they graduate secondary school with the skills and certification to start in the “trades”. For those who take this alternative, they begin earning after only two years or so and have incurred considerably less debt than the typical college graduate. Unfortunately there are so few of these in this country that they seem virtually nonexistent. Often there are such tracks available in community colleges after graduation from high school, but by then some of the potential beneficiaries of this have dropped out or are completely soured on any formal education experience and are unable to take advantage of such career courses.
As I said earlier, I have greatly benefitted from my tertiary and post graduate degrees. But I temper that with the knowledge that I went to college before the cost of books were approaching $100 each (more for lab books) and, according to the College Board, the average annual cost of tuition and fees for the 2016–2017 school year was $33,480 at private colleges, $9,650 for state residents at public colleges, and $24,930 for out-of-state residents attending public universities. I wonder if faced with four or more years of accruing debt and faced with diminished employment prospects, I would undertake the same path.
As a result, I tell young people and my grandchildren to carefully and realistically assess the costs and benefits of acquiring a college degree and to explore alternatives to that degree.
As an aside, I wonder whether piling up this debt and the disappointment and pressure that often accompanies the debt, will be just one of the problems facing our grandchildren. Will a significant number of our college graduates experience the frustration of not being able to provide for one’s family and having to face the fact that they have somehow disappointed themselves and society? If so, I wonder what outlet that pressure will seek.