Through the Education Lens

College: Debt too damn high - Should I stay or should I go?

CJ Westerberg, November 29, 2011 9:27 AM

Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble?
And if I stay it will be double
So you gotta let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
                                                     - "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" lyrics, The Clash, 
                                                                                                          Copyright Universal Music Publishing Group

Videos Below

by C.J. Westerberg

Thanksgiving weekend was a good time to catch up with family and friends yet it was interesting to hear a common theme running through many conversations - the concern about what kind of education makes sense today.  No one was particularly confident about the "right path" - whether they were parents with children in private school or public school, grandparents, or other family members.  Sure, we all agreed hard work matters.  Education matters.  But which kind?

Making our economic insecurity even more stressful to most families are the barrage of articles questioning the value of college when those articles were, until recently, an aberration.  Most still will agree that college is better than none for most . . .  but at what price?  Now we are told advanced degrees are the new undergrad degree, while being told that our students aren't learning, or are learning the wrong things.  It has to be more than just a rite of passage and an opportunity to live the life of the mind, unless money isn't an issue (those one percenters again).  You get the idea.  It's hard to separate the economic hardship experienced by families for an uncertain economic payback for the investment in college, especially when that $80,000 is now back living at home. 

The New Yorker piece, Debt by Degrees, summarized the college-as-bubble-about-to-burst perspective, and then poked a hole in it.  The final conclusion suggests cost-cutting measures by colleges as the remedy, which left me wanting more, leading to Matt Wirz's What Hedge Funds Can Teach College Students, part of an on-going series titled Generation Jobless (not exactly uplifting title, I know - see videos below which are worthwhile) in the WSJ.

Higher education should be about more than a show-me-the-money loopback after graduation because not all things can be measured, yet there has to be a connection to some 
sort of reality.  For that angle, I'll start this post with an excerpt from a bookmarked essay, 
The Purpose of College 2011, by educator Daniel de Vise, posted early this year, before getting into the economic realities posed by the two more recent and aforementioned pieces.  From de Vise:

Professor Richard Light from Harvard's Graduate School of Education has demonstrated that students who connect one thing they are doing inside the classroom with at least one thing outside substantially increase their chances of graduating. Engagement -- another popular buzz word in academia -- is important. Many students today are simply not engaged with the academic program. Instead, they cling to social media and forgo some of the deeper relationships previously forged face to face. To engage them we need to be in their spaces but not in their faces. We need to be deliberate in our programs so that the central tenants of engagement -- purpose, passion and calling -- are always front and center, while still maintaining our dedication to providing an exposure to the liberal arts, in their entire rigor.

The central task of an educator is to ensure that students are learning how to make sense of the world and to understand their place in it. They must do so in order to adapt to change. My friend Robert McDonald, chairman and CEO of Proctor & Gamble, warned Hampden-Sydney graduates at our commencement ceremony last May that they were entering a "VUCA" world -- a world that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. I have since added "R" for Real-time for the pressure that exists to be instantly aware of events that occur around the world.

Outlining the real-time pressure put upon families is "Debt by Degree," which concludes with the ominous statement, "Until America figures out its priorities, college kids are going to have to keep running just to stand still."   Author James Surowiecki posits, "The college-bubble argument makes the solution to rising costs seem simple: if people just wake up, the bubble will pop, and reasonable prices will return. It's much tougher to admit that there is no easy way out." 
Here is the intro:

The protesters at Occupy Wall Street may not have put forth an explicit set of demands yet, but there is one thing that they all agree on: student debt is too damn high. Since the late nineteen-seventies, annual costs at four-year colleges have risen three times as fast as inflation, and, with savings rates dropping and state aid to colleges being cut, students have been forced to take on ever more debt in order to pay for school. The past decade has seen a student-loan binge, so that today Americans owe well over six hundred billion dollars in college debt. That's a burden that's hard to carry at a time when more than two million college graduates are unemployed and millions more are underemployed.

And, for the some jaw-drop stats, this excerpt from "What Hedge Funds . . ":

Historically, investors have assumed 25% to 30% of student loans bundled into their bonds will default. But today they are baking in between 30% and 40% default rates among the current crop of graduates, said Chris Haid, a director in asset backed trading at Barclays Capital. Even those assumptions are a best guess and defaults could ultimately go higher if unemployment rises, Mr. Haid said.

This analysis translates into some surprising insights for students and policy makers. For example, in the current economy, it may make more sense to enter a technical college than to go to law school.

Not all lessons from the bond market are so counterintuitive. The most important, in fact, is a slight twist on a maxim most students know from childhood: stay in school, just not too long.

Failure to graduate is the single most important predictor of whether a student will default on Payday Loans . . .  (snip)

How do you think this scenario will play out?

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