“Subprime College Educations” – Partly Our Own Fault

Posted on June 14, 2012


George Will has an article in the Washington Post this week about the rising cost and declining quality of American college educations.  It really resonated with me, and the schools have a lot to answer for; it seems that these days, a college education is of less preparatory value than high school used to be some 50 or 60 years ago.

But it’s not all on the schools.  Too many of our young adults have bought into starry-eyed fantasies about following their dreams.  They think too little, unrealistically, or not at all about the financial aspects of the entire endeavor, and unfortunately, their parents are not much better at this.  How much loan money; how much interest; how many dollars is that per year; what is the starting salary for my chosen field; can I even get a job in my chosen field?  What field will get me a job?  Should I change my major?  These are matters of personal responsibility, but just as with subprime housing lenders, subprime education lenders seem to be preying on the inexperienced and naive, with predictable results:  crushing debt and unmarketable degrees.  And to exacerbate the problem, there is an alarming trend for students to take longer than the standard four years to graduate.  Well, it used to be the standard, anyway.  And not only that, but students are spending less time actually studying as well.

Will mentions the case of Cortney Munna, who has $100,000 in debt, a degree in “Religious and Women’s Studies,” and a job as a photographer (oh, look:  she went to NYU, the same school that offered a class in “DJ History, Culture, and Technique.”).  In the New York Times she acknowledges her own part in the making of this disaster, but still defends her choice of subject matter and still insists that it prepared her for “innumerable future careers.”  Uh, not so much, because that’s not how employers see things.  I have been on the hiring side of the desk.  I have reviewed resumes for education and experience.  And I can tell you this:  for young people just starting out, the name of their school was less important than the type of degree they had and how relevant it was to the particular job.  Ms. Munna’s resume would never have made it past the initial HR cut; as the hiring authority, I wouldn’t have even seen it.

I have long advocated financial literacy or financial awareness classes for junior high and high school students.  It could fall under home economics or applied mathematics.  Now, I would also advocate learning to do a good, hard, realistic assessment of the value received for one’s money, and instill an ethic of choosing something you may not enjoy, but will bring economic security.

My Dad grew up during the Depression.  One day he was assigned to write a school essay on what he wanted to be when he grew up, but he was stumped.  “That’s easy,” said his mother.  “You want to be a postman.”  “Why a postman?” he asked, baffled.  “Look around!  He’s the only one with a job!”  Wow.  Wonder how many parents are having that conversation with their kids these days.  Considering the ongoing recession, you’d think they would.

Then there is my husband, who loved literature and would have majored in it, but for the small problem of just what kind of job that would get him.  It was the 1980s, another rough economic patch.  So he majored in engineering instead, and got a job right away.  It was not his dream career, but it was something far more important:  it paid the bills.

There are other options available to our young people.  They may not want to serve in the military, but trading a few years of service for college money or for an ROTC scholarship is, in the long run, a pretty good deal.  Not to mention, the service gives a young person that most valuable of assets on a resume:  experience (and references!).  I knew an actual MD who was serving seven years in the Army (a relatively long stint) as a physical therapist because it would wipe out his considerable medical-school debt and put him far ahead of his peers when he started his civilian practice.

It’s high time to knock some of those stars out of our kids’ eyes and get them thinking about real life, and real money, before they go to college.  Just as with the subprime housing market, the final decisions  on student loans and college majors are not in the lender’s hands; they are in the buyer’s hands.  Let’s get our students to make that degree count for something.