Launched with the purest of intentions, the student loan program has produced a human and financial catastrophe. So says Josh Mitchell, author of “The Debt Trap,” referring to the staggeringly high volume of student loans outstanding, said to total about $1.6 trillion, amassed by students willing to borrow whatever it costs to achieve their academic goals. Some of it may never be repaid or may be forgiven by the government, leaving taxpayers on the hook and raising the question: Is every college education always worth whatever it takes to borrow in order to pay for it?
In his book, Mitchell says that government, business, academia and naïve citizens joined forces to produce this mountain of debt by encouraging students to borrow as necessary to pay for their education and so they did. Unfortunately, many did so with very little thought given to how difficult it might be for them to pay it back. They were driven by well-publicized statistics showing that, on average, people with at least some college earned more than people with none, that people who earned degrees earned even more and that people with graduate degrees earned quite a bit more. But the key words here are “on average.” That doesn’t mean that everyone will benefit financially from attending college and many do quite well financially without ever attending college. The common notion that everyone must attend college to lead a successful and fulfilling life is nonsense.
But that’s what Americans were conditioned to believe and so they borrowed whatever it took to pay for college and as they did, colleges and universities raised tuition rates so students borrowed even more. This was a very good deal indeed for the colleges but not necessarily for the students and their families who often co-signed and sometimes took out loans themselves by borrowing against the family residence. Investing in their kids’ higher education just seemed the right thing to do. But in some cases, the education it bought did relatively little to ensure their children’s future prosperity. The debt they amassed, on the other hand, loomed very large.
Originally intended for students whose families couldn’t afford the cost of college, the student loan program expanded into a program for just about anyone who wanted to attend their college of choice whatever the cost. Not surprisingly, tuition costs kept going up. Average tuition plus room and board at four-year degree-granting universities have risen 800% since 1980, more than 5 times the rate of inflation, and since 2007, student debt has roughly tripled, according to Mitchell.
Many students are now leaving college with student debt balances at the six figure level, especially for those completing graduate studies. While they may be earning more than most non-college graduates, many are not earning enough to pay off student loans or even pay them down as interest on the loans compounds. In the process, they are discovering a bitter reality. Not every degree is equally marketable, no matter how passionately they may feel about the field, or valued the same by employers and the institution that awarded the degree often does matter, especially to the larger and more prestigious firms. Graduates from the top tier law schools, for example, will usually earn far more than graduates from lower-ranking schools.
The successful practice of professions like law and medicine was once a virtual guarantee of a comfortable income and lifestyle. Today, the cost of a three-year law degree from a private law school, and not necessarily a top-tier one, can exceed a quarter million dollars. Only graduates of a dozen of the nation’s law schools are earning salaries two years after graduation that exceed their loan balances, according to the National Association for Law Placement.
Americans have been conditioned to believe that a college degree is essential to earning enough to live the good life and be “successful.” But there is no guarantee and not all degrees are equal. Unless one aspires to a profession that requires specific academic credentials, it is probably not a smart financial decision to amass a mountain of debt in order to acquire a degree that may have little market value. Universities have taken advantage of government loan guarantees to hike tuition costs. Some institutions, particularly for-profit schools, have raised student expectations unrealistically about the value of their degrees. There are probably some graduates of Trump University, for example, that have discovered this.
American universities are still highly regarded around the world as evidenced by the large number of foreign students paying top tuition rates. Most, however, major in the physical sciences, medicine or engineering, not the social or behavioral sciences or other majors which lead to fewer high-paying career prospects. Too many American universities are offering too many courses that do little to prepare students for viable careers, such as gender or cultural studies. And for all the talk on campus about the importance of diversity, their faculties are far from diverse politically with openly conservative professors a rarity. Unfortunately, American universities are producing a yearly crop of young socialists who are well-versed in such matters as diversity, race and climate issues but ill-prepared for careers that will earn them enough to repay their student loans.