The Increasingly Powerful Role of Student Debt in Shaping Careers and Lives

I don’t need to be convinced that community colleges are vital, as I started off in one.  To be precise, it was an auxiliary program of a community college with the rhythmic name “City University College Center at New York City Community College.”  How I luckily wound up there is a story for another day.

As for an important story today about the value of these two-year institutions, my sense is that many young people and their parents are looking more closely at them for a variety of good reasons, very much including how their students are likely to accrue much smaller – if any – debt compared to students at four-year colleges.  This theme has been coming up regularly in interviews I’m conducting for a new book, Educational Roads Less Traveled: How America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees Limits Both Careers and Economic Growth, that has grown out of American Experiment’s multi-year project “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree.”  The following passages are a sample of what people have been saying about student debt.

A senior educator with strong ties to both technical education in two-year schools and the liberal arts in four-year schools, talked about how, for decades, he had only limited success in getting students and parents to give technical education fair hearings.  The culture’s emphasis on four-year degrees was too strong.  But recently have “people outside the world of vocational technical education started paying attention to the economic opportunities” offered by that kind of training.  One reason for the change, he argued, is the frequently immense debt graduates of four-year schools – including those who drop out of four-year institutions before graduating – are taking on.

“One of the truisms of selling higher education,” he said, “has always been that people with bachelor’s degrees do better in their careers.  But increasingly I wonder if those data adequately factor in the often mountainous individual and family debt that four-year degrees often force them to go into.”  More than a fair skepticism.  (All quotes have been edited for clarity and conciseness.)

By the measures I’ve seen, graduates of four-year schools in Minnesota owe, on average, more than $30,000 in college loans, which is quite high among the states.

In a wide-ranging discussion with a group of undergraduates, one young woman talked about how she was interested in eventually going to law school, but that she was hesitant about doing so immediately after finishing her B.A., as she would be “jumping from one debt to another.”  One can contend that we have more than enough lawyers and she should think about doing something else.  But what if she would be a terrific attorney (as she likely would be), but that the size of her undergraduate debt would first delay, and then perhaps dissuade, her from pursuing not only law school but any kind of graduate education?  This would benefit no one.

I have no problem with young adults winding up with a reasonable amount of college debt, as it’s more than right they share such economic burdens with taxpayers.  But one of my main concerns is that four-year college debt, which is frequently bigger than the price of a Ford, is dampening the likelihood of baccalaureate winners continuing their education when it clearly would be in their best interests, as well as their communities’, that they do so.

Two more potent comments by interviewees.

One of man spoke about a friend who has three adult children.  Two of them earned four-year degrees in the liberal arts and picked up substantial debts doing so.  The third sibling, without the aid of a B.A. or B.S., has made his career in a technical field, where he makes more money than the other two, plus he has “zero debt.”

And another interviewee spoke of a relative who wanted to be a welder, but was pressured by his parents to acquire four-year degree, and in the process, more than $100,000 in debt, too.  According to my respondent, he’s a “great welder and loves to sculpt,” and who has asked, “Why wouldn’t my parents look at trade schools as being great places for me?”