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Predicting the future

September 13, 2010
I agree with plenty of other people that higher education has been incredibly overpriced. It’s gone up way faster than inflation, most graduates go into the workplace with way too much debt, and the financial worth of a degree rarely is equal to its cost. But I don’t know whether it’s clear what will be the outcome. However, that doesn’t stop people from making predictions the higher education bubble will burst.
I talked about some guy who calculated the actual cost/benefit before and determined it was better to invest the money in stocks or in starting a business rather than going to college. I thought a lot his assumptions to get there were pretty flawed and I think the same can be said for people trying to compare college to the housing market. If you can’t afford your mortgage, you lose your house. If you can’t afford your student loans, they don’t take your degree away from you. Yes it’s very bad and yes you might spend the rest of your natural life making payments on an education loan that never paid off for you. Maybe you got a degree in art history and then ended up being an insurance salesman in a rocky job market. However, they can’t take your diploma from you and they can’t suck that knowledge you gained back out of your head.
The author of the latest bubble theory, Michael Barone, makes some valid points. He links to this College Dropout Factories from the Washington Monthly about colleges whose costs are skyrocketing but whose graduation rates are plummeting. So people aren’t even graduating and are still saddled with extreme debt. This is not dissimilar to the PBS Frontline show College Inc. that covered for-profit institutions who lure in working adults with cheap, subsidized federal loans without necessarily arming them with the skills to succeed and graduate from those pricey “career” programs.
Barone argues whether students shouldn’t attend affordable community colleges at home the first two years then transfer to a four year institution. I agree with that and have tried to convince family to at least consider that option. But then I am reminded of this article in the NYTimes about helicopter parents dropping their students off for college. How the “going away” experience is not only a big deal to kids eager to go into the world but to parents who either treasured their first experience of independence or who did not get the same opportunities and want better and more for their children. Even when older generations chime in on the helicopter parent debate they like to cite their own examples of moving away to college and not knowing how to do laundry and learning from their peers or surviving off of ramen for several years at a time. The “college experience” is so crucial to parents who want better for their kids but also adults who criticize how children are overly protected these days. Staying at home is either too easy for kids or too lame of an experience.
I suspect the federal government will eventually have to cut back on the free flow of federally subsidized student loans. Once that happens the landscape of higher education will change. But whether that will mean more private loans, more aid to students who need it, a stagnation of college costs while continuing to cut back on services, or a complete crash is difficult to predict. Any opinions? How did the “college experience” change you and what do you recommend to your family and friends? Is college worth it these days?
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