Debt and Career Choices
The President wants to keep student loans cheap. Because I believe in higher education with all of my heart and soul, it would seem natural for me to support this proposal. As the parent of a child that starts college in the fall this proposal would assist our goal of giving her a quality education. But it doesn’t.
While I am not willing to go so far as to say the government should do away with school loans, I would like to see the program scaled back considerably. As it stands today loans are easy to come by. Too easy…
My story is that I started higher education in community college. In 1993 the price for a 12 hours was $440 per semester (books not included). After paying $2,500 per school year for my last two years of parochial school this seemed like the bargain of a lifetime. In 1996 I transferred to the University of Louisville to work on my degrees and it was harder because tuition was about four times what I paid for community college. Since I had no parental support I spent much of the next 7 years going part-time and a couple of times sitting out a semester until I had raised the necessary funds.
Pell grants definitely eased the burden of tuition for me. They enabled me to take four classes instead of two, or to simply go to class and still make my car payment. I was proud of my debt-free position until a weak moment in my last year of college. I had been unemployed for a short period and run up a small amount of credit card debt. Talking to a friend they suggested a school loan because the interest rate was much cheaper. It seemed like a good call until I got into the loan office. With a one-page form they guaranteed me thousands more than I needed. The interest rate was less than what I paid on my car, so why not add that debt too? There was an academic conference in the spring that I wanted to attend. That was an educational investment, right?
Needless to say, in two short semesters I was bitten by the credit bug and racked up several thousand in student loan debt. Nine years after graduation we still write a check every month. My grandfather would have called this a ‘stupid tax’ and he would have been correct.
The student loan system, while good intentioned, is negligent for tempting college kids with easy money at a time when their judgement is not mature enough to appreciate what they are doing. The OWS movement of last year highlighted this trend as thousands of college graduates protested their debt load. I certainly didn’t feel sorry for them but I understand how they got there.
At a time when 1 in 2 new college grads are unemployed or underemployed many of us face a tough question about higher education and career planning. In our house, we want our daughter to have the college experience because our own college experiences were so positive. We made a lot of friends and developed a passion for lifelong learning. We also developed basic skills that have helped us in the workplace. But I don’t have any illusions that college will lead directly to a career for my daughter. It is more about personal development and gaining a knowledge base she can build on with real world experience.
U.S. manufacturing is desperate for skilled workers. I mentioned to my daughter the other day that after college she could become a pipe fitter or a machinist but I was only half-joking. My father, was a welder. He insisted that his kids go to college. That seemed like a good call in the early 90s. Ironically, if I had instead become a welder I would probably make at least 50% more income that I do at my white-collar desk job today. After staring at computer screens all day and being forced onto the treadmill every night to fight off sedentary bulge, I kind of dream about working with my hands and having something physical to show for it. The only thing that scares me is remembering my dad laying on the couch every night with a heating pad because his back was so wrecked.
College education has certainly become the high school diploma of thirty years ago. It has become the minimum price for admission into white collar employment. But maybe there’s another route we aren’t encouraging enough. That’s the route through a trade school and less debt. More and more I find this option to be an appealing choice. I’m not knocking college, but I think the time has come to ease off our emphasis of a four-year degree as career prep. That sends an unrealistic message to the kids perparing for college today. I still think college is an excellent choice for a variety of reasons. But it has to be part of a larger plan of self-development. And if it’s not looked at as career prep then maybe students will not be tempted to make a devil’s bargain of taking on student loan debt as an investment in their future.