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Thomas: Debt burden bursts the college bubble

POSTED: July 23, 2012 1:00 a.m.

With nearly 20 years of teaching experience, I have a unique educational perspective. Unlike most, I have spent a lengthy amount of time in each of the K-12 education arenas, public, private, and home school. This also includes operating from a strictly secular approach, a strictly Christian approach and somewhat of a mix of the two.

In the last several months, I have linked to several columns on my website that have heralded the next debt bubble ripe to burst in the U.S.: higher education. Americans now owe more on their student loans than on their credit cards, more than $1 trillion.

In 2011, the average college student graduated with over $23,000 in student loan debt, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000. Worse still, nearly one-third of those that borrow never graduate.

While student loan debt is often considered “good debt” in that it leads to significantly more income over a lifetime, most recent college graduates are finding that not to be the case. According to a 2011 survey, 53.6 percent of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 were unemployed or underemployed. What’s more, a study last year revealed that 85 percent of new college graduates are moving back in with their parents.

Of course, student loan debt is greatly due to the astronomic rise in the cost of a college education. The cost of tuition and fees increased faster than health care costs.

Law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds, in his book “The Higher Education Bubble,” reports that, with the easy availability of federal funds, tuition and fees have gone up over 440 percent in the last 30 years.

Yet, even with such dramatic cost increases, enrollment at colleges and universities continues to grow. For decades now in the U.S., a premium has been placed on a college education. In 2009 President Barack Obama vowed that, by 2020, America will “have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” However, some are beginning to rethink such ambitions.

The attitude that most every high school graduate should go to college is another significant factor in the looming college debt bubble. This has led to what George Will recently called “subprime college educations.” This in turn has led to, among other things, bloated college faculties and administrations, where in some ridiculous cases administrators outnumber faculty.

Robert Samuelson notes that, in 1940, less than 5 percent of Americans had a college degree. “No more,” he notes. “At last count roughly 40 percent of Americans had some sort of college degree.”

Samuelson points out that, the increased emphasis on a college education has resulted in “dumbed down college,” noting that, “45 percent of college students hadn’t significantly improved their critical thinking and writing skills after two years; after four years, the proportion was still 36 percent.” Thus, along with “subprime college educations,” we are getting “subpar” ones as well.

The emphasis on a college education in America is in spite of Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates which show that only 20 percent of U.S. jobs require a bachelor’s degree or more.

So given all of this, what is to be done?

One part of the solution is something that I have said for years, and Samuelson agrees: There needs to be closer ties between high schools and the job market. Yet as Samuelson points out, by and large in the U.S. “vocational education is de-emphasized and disparaged,” and “apprenticeship programs combining classroom and on-the-job training ... are sparse.”

Another part of the solution — and this should certainly be the case within Christian education — is that all students need to clearly understand that their worth as a human being is not measured by their academic success. No matter how dynamic a school’s curriculum, engaging its faculty or impressive its facilities, some people simply were not made to be in a traditional classroom — especially one that is college driven.

Lastly, one factor when it comes to educating children that cannot be ignored is the influence of family. In fact, it is the most important factor. As a popular columnist noted in 2010, “research suggests that about 90 percent of the differences among the proficiency of schools can be explained by five factors: days absent from school, hours spent watching television, pages read for homework, the quantity and quality of reading matter in the home — and the presence of two parents in the home.”

In other words, “the best predictor of a school’s performance is family performance.”

Until our culture addresses the destructive decline of the traditional (biblical) family, school and student performance will merely reflect this decline.

Trevor Thomas is a Hall County resident and regular columnist.


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