Sunday, May 13, 2012

College and College Debt

College is not for everyone, at least not for those who cannot figure out a return on the investment. At eighteen, as a senior, even at seventeen, one should know what it costs and what one may obtain in income to pay it off.

The NY Times has a piece today bemoaning the costs of college debt. As they recount:

xxxxx, 23, wouldn’t seem a perfect financial fit for a college that costs nearly $50,000 a year. Her father, a paramedic, and mother, a preschool teacher, have modest incomes, and she has four sisters. But when she visited xxxxx, she was won over by faculty and admissions staff members who urge students to pursue their dreams rather than obsess on the sticker price. 

“As an 18-year-old, it sounded like a good fit to me, and the school really sold it,” said xxxxx, a marketing major. “I knew a private school would cost a lot of money. But when I graduate, I’m going to owe like $900 a month. No one told me that.” 

The first test of adulthood is that prior planning prevents poor performance. In 1959 I knew I could not afford college if I had to pay. Thus as part of my equation was not getting a loan but a scholarship, it was free. Thus between jobs and scholarships, that was in the days when being just smart was all that counted, the days when discriminating was not part of the selection process, and scholarships were awarded solely on the basis of performance. Things were simple, do better than a lot of others and you got a free ticket.

It is not so simple today. Just look at college applications. did you cure cancer in your junior year, did you save some starving third world village over mid year break, about that symphony you wrote? And yes, did you score a perfect score on the SATs and find those seven mistakes that the CEEB had made? And if you did, you got the opportunity to pay $60,000 per year tuition with a 12% inflation rate!

The answer, there must be alternatives. For many courses you do not need the massive and costly buildings, just a cinder block building with windows and some heat.

Could not the person mentioned by the Times have done the calculation with her parents? How about, we cannot afford this, can you? That is what parents must do from time to time. Yes, it makes them feel they are not up to what others do, but perhaps they are not.

Then again, would one hire someone who made such a decision as this student? Is this reflective of a much wider cultural problem. For most of us education is a means to getting a job, yes work. It is the apprentice world of the Middle Ages. Yet somehow it has become a follow your dream world, a nonsensical world which may very well never have existed. For the very wealthy also sent offspring off to be educated to enter the family business, and only rarely to follow their dream.

The worst thing ever to happen is the "follow your dream" advice, it works for a few, a very few.