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  • Dan Connors

College- good investment or money down the toilet?

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

We are throwing more and more money and bright young minds into the confusing cesspool that is today's higher education system, and what do we have to show for it?

- The average student loan debt is nearing a record $38,000 per borrower, and at 5% interest that debt will follow many of these new graduates through their entire working adult lives. Student loan debt is not forgivable in bankruptcy, so some of them will likely die with it still unpaid.

- The total student loan debt burden has skyrocketed in the last two decades, up to $1.7 Trillion in 2020, seven times what it was in 2003. This debt hangs over the next generation like a sword, keeping them from buying houses, starting families, or taking risks that are essential to learning and growing.

- The for-profit educational system preys on students by offering programs that are expensive, unaccredited, and often deemed worthless by potential employers. Students are not screened, prepared, or advised, as long as they can qualify for loans, and they drop out at high rates with little to show for their efforts.

- The traditional not-for-profit college and university system is not much better. Students are recruited and sold a lifestyle of beautiful dorms, fun campus activities, and fancy athletic facilities, while grades are inflated and students aren't challenged enough. Colleges and Universities don't want to tell their students unpleasant truths or hard choices, preferring to collect the tuition money and federal grants instead.

In a recent University of Texas pilot program, students were confronted with salary data and job opportunities of different professions in their freshman years to help influence what majors the students chose. The extra information given to the students ended up having had little to no effect. Students still chose majors that they felt passionate about that weren't particularly marketable- anthropology, English literature, communications, political science, or psychology. I find this both fascinating and depressing.

Knowing how high the stakes are, many students are following their passions. I both admire their courage and shake my head at the folly of it all. For some, following your passions works out. But for most of us, it doesn't. Employers generally don't care about passions, which is why over half of all workers report being disengaged at work. That's why most need a side gig or a hobby. It's an age-old debate- be safe and unhappy, or be poor and at least try to follow your passions. The only problem is that at age 20 we barely know where our true passions lie. I would bet that over 90% of all course content from college is forgotten or ignored five years later.

Young adulthood and college are confusing times, and many young people sign up for commitments like student loans and degree programs that are ill-suited to their abilities or desires. Given the high pressures and large amounts of money involved, students at that vulnerable point have blinders on and go with what they know and like, which isn't much unfortunately at that point in life. The lucky ones have mentors or specific, inborn talents, but most of us muddle through on our own.

I see two problems here, and there's much that needs to be done. First, we need to figure out some way to make our economy more human-centered and less profit-centered, so that jobs of the future will engage workers values, skills, and passions in a more productive way. The changes required for this kind of transformation are beyond anything I can cover in a short essay like this, but the fact that so many today are trapped in soulless gig-work that machines and artificial intelligence are eager to take over should tell us something.

The second problem sits with higher education and its innate failure to address the success of the students they treat as customers and not future workers. We need a higher educational system that challenges students, expands their horizons instead of keeping them in bubbles, and provides them affordable knowledge and skills that they still aren't paying for when they retire. Here are some of the things that need to be considered in fixing this expensive system:

1- Start with high schools and improving career education, which is great in some schools but non-existent in others. Require every student to read What Color is Your Parachute, draw up a simple budget, and spend a week shadowing a worker in a field of interest before filling out a single college application. Recognize the innate potential of every student and help them to find their unique sparks before life snuffs them out.

2- Freshman year at college should be all about exposure to new things. Courses should be shorter, pass/fail, and focused on exposing students to fields and topics that are in the most demand. I realize that the pre-med and pre-law folks whose destinies have been determined from birth may chafe at this, but if there's any one time to expand one's horizons, it's freshman year. Students need to know that there are always options and multiple paths for their passions and abilities. Liberal arts and humanities courses should be saved for sophomore year.

3- Gap years should be encouraged, as should work-study programs and getting out into the communities. College campuses can become their own bubble, and the peer-pressure culture that keeps teens looking at each other and not their world needs to be challenged regularly.

4- Somehow, teachers must be prioritized over facilities. The fact that most of today's students are learning from transient, low-paid, adjunct faculty members with no benefits should be a scandal. Students need the best and wisest role models there are, and it ain't football coaches.

5- Ideally, all student loans should be paid off by the time someone reaches age 30, so that they can move on with their life and build a better future for themselves and the next generation. Any student loan forgiveness programs should start with this goal in mind. Student's shouldn't be allowed to take on excessive debts without a plan. Instead, they should be allowed grants or agree to work in disadvantaged areas to pay off their debts.

Some want to make all college free. That would be a big mistake. It should cost something, but be affordable. When you make things free they lose their value. Some think that the government should wipe out student loans. Doing that haphazardly would be a mistake unless something is asked of the students getting loan forgiveness and the system is fixed to prevent future calamities.

Higher education is the endpoint of a 17 year journey for most students. It should have the goal of preparing students for the world they are about to enter. If they work hard and do their best, they should get the opportunity to reach their version of the American Dream. That's not today's current reality. Lori Laughlin pays $500,000 to get her kids into UCLA while thousands of students are forced to drop out of school because they can't afford the tuition. We are wasting billions of dollars and millions of lives, and need to do better. For the sake of the next generation, we must do better.

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The above information is provided courtesy of the author who has done his best to be factual. You are still responsible for interpreting and checking those facts elsewhere, and I make no representations that I am a mental health expert beyond what I presented. Thank you.

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