My sister recently returned from a college tour.
The occurrence of spring break offered the exciting opportunity to crisscross the country, in search of where my teenaged sister will spend some of the most foundational years of her life. A junior, she still has some time before she must make one of the most consequential decisions she will ever have to make.
It seems almost unfair to force teenagers to make this decision. A little more life experience might shed new light on what it means to go college, illuminate what’s really important about pursuing higher education. The dangers of going into massive amounts of debt, not to mention whether or not everyone readily knows exactly what career they would like to pursue, or which degree will readily help them achieve their goals.
“You go into a quarter of a million dollars in debt, for what?” my mother says, as she reflects upon the trip.
College admissions officers are ready with an answer. They promise “need-based” aid, scholarships, and work-study programs. They share success stories of recent graduates, offering prospective students hope that they too can achieve their dreams. They appear unruffled by the college debt crisis currently engulfing our nation. Recent estimates reveal student loan debt to be over 1.5 trillion dollars. What are the long-term economic implications of such a staggering amount of debt?
“I feel like it’s totally hampering our economy on a bigger level,” my mother says, going on to detail how students saddled with student loan debt are unable to purchase a home. “Homeownership is a huge part of our economy,” she says, speaking as someone who also happens to be a realtor. It will likely take a few more decades to parse out the results, but recent headlines have covered the plunging birth rates among Millennials, along with the delay in marriage and buying a home. “I can’t do both,” a Millennial co-worker just told me recently, as she determines what step to take first: get married or buy a house. Perhaps the rosy picture painted by colleges is not all that it seems. Could it be that in many cases, students are getting a raw deal?
Watching my sister walk this road feels all too familiar. I, too, bought into the idea that going away to college – and incurring student loan debt – was a natural part of process. The stakes seemed low, nearly nonexistent. I would obtain a good job post-graduation, and live the life I imagined.
Thankfully, my private institution got in the way. As they adjusted my tuition rate going into my sophomore year, suddenly the implications began to sink in. Without the additional “need-based” support, I decided to transfer to a college back home, affording me the ability to live at home and graduate “debt-free.” A few years after graduation, I now see the benefits of not making a student loan payment each month all the more clearly.
“She doesn’t understand the financial implications,” my mother says, in reference to my sister. Perhaps not. Yet going on a college trip and looking at the various price tags can help shift perspectives, allowing for the possibility of altering plans in an effort to provide for a sound financial future. After all, are massive amounts of debt justified for every student in pursuit of the average career?
NYU may have instituted a groundbreaking solution. A recent 60 Minutesreport highlights the school’s transition to offering medical school students a “tuition-free” education, valued at around $200,000 per student. According to the report, 85 to 86 percent of medical students graduate with some form of loans. This transition was made possible by donations totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars, an effort that may come to serve as a model for schools across the nation. In order to attract the best students, the theory goes, other top medical schools will have to emulate NYU. Perhaps this could even be extended to institutions of higher education across the nation, in order to prevent rising tuition costs from saddling a whole new generation of students.
In the meantime, students like my sister will have to decide what path is best for them. Each student in America is unique, and may require a different solution. For some, taking on loans may be a risk worth taking. For others, a more prudent path might alleviate the possibility of long-term stress. Regardless, those of us who have already traveled this road can do our part to share our stories with others. Admittedly, I don’t have all the answers – none of us do. And, while I certainly have opinions on which path my sister should take, her older brother will be there to support her either way.
Whether she likes it or not.
Samuel Moore-Sobel is a freelance writer. To read more of his work, visit www.holdingontohopetoday.com