What has happened to the solid old notion of avoiding debt? Repayment has been a nagging problem since the inception of the Student Loan program. But now the Education Department reports a dramatic rise in late payments of student loans and in the number of those loans referred for possible legal action. No doubt the current recession is contributing to the problem, but there is another less publicized cause. In my opinion, the false belief that everyone should go to college has led to unrealistic academic and career expectations.
Secondary schools are focusing on standardized tests and increased graduation rates. It is no secret that a significant number of high school graduates have less than adequate reading, writing and math competence. The ideal of a college education is setting up those unsuspecting young people for academic disillusionment and intolerable financial burdens. This is particularly true for the ones who need financial assistance to go to college.
Statistically, having a college degree enhances earning power enough that it is worth giving serious consideration to incurring debt to acquire one — the right one. For those whose interest and abilities match what college requires, borrowing to cover the cost may make sense. The economic downturn has highlighted how some colleges recruit students based on empty assurances of prospective employment. The promises do not necessarily come from the schools, they come from the widely held misconception that attending college is what every young person in America should do. That simply is not so. Every person should continue classroom education as far he or she desires and is capable, but college should remain a personal choice based entirely on career interest and academic ability.
Some students would be much happier working in occupations that require other kinds of knowledge, but they, or their parents, succumb to the social need to do what everyone else is doing. Others, whose academic abilities require remedial classwork, take longer to graduate (if they eventually do graduate) and end up paying (owing) more as a result. Yet, the government and society encourage young people and their families to go into debt to finance college attendance. More and more new graduates, and especially drop-outs, face a debt to income ratio that is almost certain to lead to default — even in good economic times.
Low unemployment rates do not eliminate consumer bankruptcy just as good business cycles do not eliminate business failures. There are times when borrowing money is financially sound, but too many consumers and supposedly smart business managers are unable to repay what they owe. Promulgating unrealistic expectations that everyone should go to college and own a home is adding to an already difficult situation, and is setting the stage for personal financial calamity. Compared to some, this problem is not large, but small problems grow and this one is more than five times larger than it was a few years ago. It is contributing to the destruction of our education system, and undermining the old-fashioned concept that borrowed money must be repaid.
I have come to terms with getting older, and with being old-fashioned. My parents would have laughed at the idea of me, their anxiety-causing authority-challenging first-born, referring to myself as old-fashioned, but my children and grandchildren have known it for as long as they can remember. Whether or not we grow old is beyond our control, but being old fashioned is a choice.
In the ways my mother and father taught me about personal responsibility, I am old-fashioned. I see my country making a mockery of the guiding principle: take responsibility for what you do, and pay your own way without going into debt to get there. I learned not to expect an undeserved reward, and am not likely to abandon that simple concept. Mostly because I don’t want to, and I believe doing so would be succumbing to the sins of greed, sloth or pride — perhaps all three.
Arithmetic never presented a problem for me. My father spent hours drilling me on the fundamentals, including the dreaded multiplication tables. I thought my success was all me and said so. Dad let me have my way. He stopped the drills, and I stopped working so hard on schoolwork. A strange and unexpected thing happened when I moved on to Algebra: where there had always been an A, there was an F.
Dread and shame fall short of describing my emotions on the walk home with that report card. I knew my punishment would be one of Dad’s devastating lecture-cross-examinations to reinforce what I already knew. The F was the grade I deserved. I had not earned, and certainly was not entitled to a better grade. The fear dissipated, but the shame and the lesson remained.
Miss Elsie Lawson rebuffed my pleas for leniency. Without mincing words she told me that she did not give grades she only recorded them, and if I wanted a better grade I would have to earn it. Although she did not “give” grades, Miss Lawson did offer remedial help if I was willing to do the work. My angry adolescent self-pity dissipated, and when I reached college it evolved into gratitude.
I think of that time in my life whenever I read about high school graduates cum college students who do not meet the basic academic requirements and must spend time and money taking remedial classes. Why are they there? Why are they, their parents and their colleges burdened with the added cost of remedial classes? Why did their high schools allow them to graduate? And why are they using borrowed money?
The student loan program in its present form is an abomination designed to increase bank profits in the guise of social good. Our lawmakers have taken steps to revise the program, but killing the false premise that everyone should go to college will help to assure that the program can return to the original intents of the National Defense Education Act of 1958. But until we face up to requiring students to have college level competence before they enroll, the cost of college and the financial burden on students will continue to rise. And the rise will come without corresponding increases in productivity.