The college conundrum
by Janie B. Cheaney
Posted on Monday, November 11, 2013, at 11:54 am
Do we or don’t we send the kids to college? For Americans of a generally middle-class or better income level, that was a question that wouldn’t even have occurred to them a mere five years ago. But the drumbeat of doubt that began around the turn of the millennium has risen with tuition rates, until even established bloggers at the Huffington Post are writing pieces titled “I Might Not Send My Kids to College.”
Sarah Stewart Holland’s main concern is that she and her husband won’t be able to afford the $1,100 per month they would have to start saving now in order to get their two preschool boys through a typical undergraduate program. But why bother saving when student loans are so easy to get? That’s the problem: easy to get, very hard to pay off. Holland and her husband are still paying off their student debt, a six-digit number she lacked the practical experience to comprehend when she agreed to the terms: “No one lied to me, but no one was telling me the full truth” about how much of their disposable income would go to pay the debt—a debt that wouldn’t be paid off until her children were old enough to be filling out college applications themselves. That money would have paid for a lot of summer camps, track shoes, and family vacations.
Looking forward, she wonders how much actual educational value her kids are likely to get for those astronomical costs. The job and career market is much lighter on its feet than the lumbering apparatus of a liberal-arts university, and the majority of college graduates eventually wind up in jobs that have little to do with their degree. Should they specialize, or go for a dime-a-dozen general degree like “communications”?
But if the boys don’t go to college, she worries about their employability. Jobs for which a high school education was sufficient 20 years ago require college diplomas now. Don’t they? Often they do, but I know many successful young adults who never went to college at all, or else just took a few certification classes and never had to display any sort of diploma. As they grow older and gain experience in the work world, the degree is even less important. Wise employers look for the same qualities now as they always did: the ability to learn and the willingness to work.
Some observers believe the college bubble is about to break, and I think that’s likely true. When liberals like Stanley Fish join the chorus for higher-education reform, and insiders like Anya Kamenetz write books titled DIY U, something is about to give. Texas and Florida are trying to wrestle tuition costs down to a flat $10,000. Distance learning has a spiffy new image thanks to M.I.T. Educators are proposing alternative models, both practical and classical. Sarah Stewart Holland’s own modest but sensible suggestion is that high school graduates delay college for a few years. There are other alternatives as well, like certification and entrepreneurship. We don’t have to take an unacceptable status quo, and God willing, we won’t.