The Frequent Fright of Student Debt

When students take out, say, $30,000 in loans, do they think that’s all they’re obliged to pay back?  Or do they properly factor in interest and realize they will wind up paying $40,000, give or take?  As I wrote recently, I have no proof, but my guess is most students, in the excitement and/or fear of it all, somehow overlook the reality of interest and focus on the smaller number.

As I also wrote a few weeks ago, I don’t think it’s a terrible thing for a student to invest that amount of money in an undergraduate degree; a sum which should pay for itself many times over a working lifetime.  But what if that student is interested in pursuing a graduate or professional degree?  That’s when I begin to worry.

An exceptionally talented intern of mine, a college sophomore, framed matters very well during a roundtable discussion last summer.  I had just asked her and four of her friends, all of whom had graduated together from the same demanding high school, about what they saw themselves doing about three years hence.

“I think I eventually want to go to law school,” she said, “but I don’t want to do that right away because I don’t want to go from one debt to another right away.  It’s a huge investment to make, so I want to first see if I’m happy with what I might be doing without a law degree.  If I am, I wouldn’t need to go and get one.”  Suffice it to say she would make a sizable contribution to justice if she did go.

It is here where several important and sometimes surprising caveats kick in, especially given that the main aim of ‘Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree” is urging more students to at least consider careers in which less than a B.A. or B.S. is needed.

It would be a mistake to assume, for instance, that students graduating with the biggest debts usually wind up with the toughest financial plights.  They generally don’t because they tend to graduate the most-respected institutions, win the best-paying jobs, and contend with unemployment less often.  This is the case for men and women earning both undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Counterintuitively, students who wind up in the most trying financial holes are disproportionately those who enrolled in community colleges, the very places I’ve been applauding.  To what extent might this community college fact of economic life undermine the whole thrust of Great Jobs?  Little if any, is the answer, and note I use the words “enrolled in,” not “graduated from” above.  The difference can be immense.

I also didn’t say anything just now about what kinds of programs students chose.  Did they take only or mostly general courses which left them largely bereft of marketable skills, along with resumes announcing they might do poorly at following through since they left school before graduating?

Or did they take the kinds of technical and career-focused courses my American Experiment colleagues and I have been stressing, completing the kind of two-year degree, or shorter certificate program, that employers value?  The answer is manifest: There’s an ocean of difference between pursuing the kinds of community college programs that lead to solid middle-class careers and then graduating, and doing neither.

Susan Dynarski is a professor of education, public policy, and economics at the University of Michigan.  She wrote in 2015 in the New York Times that loan defaults are “concentrated among the millions of students who drop out without a degree, and they tend to have smaller debts.”  Or similarly, “Students who attended a two- or four-year college without earning a degree are struggling to find well-paying work to pay off the debt they accumulated.” Or as my adviser once advised, “The idea is to finish.”

As for students who do earn bachelor’s degrees, she added, the “vast majority” of them are doing very nicely.  “Only 2 percent of undergraduates borrow more than $50,000, and they also aren’t the ones who tend to have problems with their debt.”  Might this latter conclusion by Dynarski undermine a broader point I want to make: that debt, in fact, is causing many students and parents to rethink post-high school plans?

No again, as just because the “vast majority” of loan holders with baccalaureates are “doing very nicely,” as she puts it, that doesn’t mean acquiring tens of thousands of dollars in debt is an attractive prospect for most people.  Her conclusion, moreover, at least as captured in a couple of sentences, does not speak to the fear many high school students surely have about picking up a ton of debt even if they are otherwise boldly confident they eventually will succeed greatly.

As for their parents, imagine the fright they might have, particularly if they have more than one child in college at the same time, or on the cusp.