Wealthy Frenchman

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Stepping on the Dream


One of the weirder things at work these days is the fact that we’re making it more difficult for American youngsters to afford college at a time when a college education is a virtual prerequisite for establishing and maintaining a middle-class standard of living.

Young men and women are leaving college with debt loads that would break the back of a mule. Families in many cases are taking out second mortgages, loading up credit cards and raiding 401(k)s to supplement the students’ first wave of debt, the ubiquitous college loan.

At the same time, many thousands of well-qualified young men and women are being shut out of college, denied the benefits and satisfactions of higher education, because they can’t meet the ever-escalating costs.

You want a recipe for making the U.S. less competitive over the next few decades? This is it.

Traditionally, one of the sweetest periods in the lives of many college graduates has been the time immediately after leaving school, when they could relax and take the measure of the newly emerging adult world. It was a time, perhaps, to travel, or to sample intriguing employment opportunities, even if they didn’t pay particularly well. Debt was not usually the overriding concern of the young graduate.

That has changed. Along with their degree, most graduates leave college now with a loan obligation that will hover over them for years, maybe decades. Student loans have decisively overtaken grants as the primary form of financial aid for undergraduates.

Two-thirds of all graduates now leave college with some form of debt. The average amount is close to $20,000. Some owe many times that.

Tamara Draut, in her book, “Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead,” tells us:

“Back in the 1970s, before college became essential to securing a middle-class lifestyle, our government did a great job of helping students pay for school. Students from modest economic backgrounds received almost free tuition through Pell grants, and middle-class households could still afford to pay for their kids’ college.”

Since then, tuition at public and private universities has soared while government support for higher education, other than student loan programs, has diminished.

This is a wonderful example of extreme stupidity. America will pony up a trillion or two for a president who goes to war on a whim, but can’t find the money to adequately educate its young. History has shown that these kinds of destructive trade-offs are early clues to a society in decline.

At the state level, per-pupil spending for higher education is at a 25-year low, even as government officials and corporate leaders keep pounding out the message that a college degree is the key to a successful future.

Ms. Draut, director of the Economic Opportunity Program at Demos, a public policy group in New York, got to the heart of the matter in her recent testimony before a U.S. Senate committee looking into higher education costs.

“The fundamental problem,” she said, “is rooted in the reality that our government no longer really helps people pay for college — it helps them go into debt for college. The question we need to be asking is not, ‘How much student loan debt is reasonable?’ but, ‘What is the best way to help students afford college?’ ”

The kids who graduate with enormous debt burdens — $40,000, $80,000, $100,000 or more — face a range of uncomfortable and even debilitating consequences, the first of which is the persistent anxiety over how their loans are to be repaid.

I’ve spoken recently with a number of law students who have already decided to go into corporate practice because their first choice — public interest law — would not pay enough to cover their loans. Many students have turned their backs on teaching for the same reason.

At that stage of life, you shouldn’t have to choose between a job you would love and one that you would take simply because it would pay the bills. Talk about stepping on a dream.

There are also plenty of cases of students who have postponed marriage or buying a home or having children because of their college loan obligations.

And then there are those who never see a graduation day. There’s no way of telling what talents have been squandered, or what great benefits to society have been lost, because bright students who were unable to afford the costs have been forced to leave college, or never went to college at all.

In a nation as rich as ours, it should be easy to pay for college. For some reason, we find it easier to pay for wars.


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