Laid Low by Higher Education
This is becoming a growing wave of like opinion:
“We have too many college seats,” [former Keene State College instructor Craig] Brandon, a Surry resident, says in an interview. “We don’t need that many college graduates. The reality is that we overeducate people, which would be OK if it were free, but it’s not free.” Parents lose years of careful savings. Students go into debt. Opportunity costs are immeasurable.
The alleged wage premium — the extra lifetime money college graduates make compared to those who stop at high school — is both exaggerated and shrinking. One student graduates high school and goes straight into the work force. Another starts college, but drops out after a few semesters. A third takes the actual average of five years to get a four-year degree and graduates with the average $25,000 student loan debt. Even if the college grad has a better-paying job — an outcome not at all guaranteed — years of tuition, living expenses, deferred income and now student loan payments put her in a deep hole. Five or even 20 years after leaving high school, which classmate is furthest ahead?
Brandon describes the vast majority of colleges as “subprime,” which he defines as any school that has lowered its standards to the point at which almost anyone can pass. There’s a college for every student at any price point, regardless of ability or career goals. At subprime schools, Brandon estimates, only 10 percent of students are really interested in academics. The rest are there for mostly social purposes.
I’ve been thinking that the push for college has become like a much broader, and more legitimate, version of little league parents’ dreams of scholarships and professional sports careers for their children or the obsession that one can observe during the audition episodes of American Idol. What’s lost in the cultural messaging is that it is college, of itself, is a guarantor of nothing except, as Fergus Cullen puts it in the quotation above, lost savings, debt, and opportunity costs.
Of course, students can extract an excellent education even from “subprime” schools. As the quality of the institution declines, the self-direction required from the student increases. After all, a truly motivated young adult could learn a degree’s worth of knowledge simply with four years off and a library card. And if degrees are designed to be acquired, rather than earned, then they don’t really tell potential employers whether its holder took the downhill or uphill route.