Whiting column: Easing burden of college debt
Accumulating exorbitant college debt is an institutional, systemic and individual issue. Eliminating it may not be feasible, but minimization is, through responsible action by the same three entities.
Institutionally, all post-secondary education and training needs to be more cost efficient. A university semester is 72-75 days of instruction. Consequently, a fall and spring semester is 150 days — 30 weeks. Not considering weekends, that leaves 180 unused days.
A summer session is 30 days — six weeks, restricting the number of classes to less than half a typical semester. Inefficient to the point the student is better off working and earning.
If the university had three full-length semesters, a student could graduate in three years, saving a year’s room, board and fees and facilitating entering the workforce a year earlier. Three full semesters would use 225 days. Disregarding weekends leaves 28 days, almost six weeks, available for student/teacher vacations; far more than the graduate will have in their initial career level position. The university buildings are there, most likely paid for by taxpayer dollars, so use them. A business couldn’t sustain itself using its assets 150 out of 365 days.
Three semesters would, at minimum, give the student a choice: Use a full third semester educationally graduating in three years or work and earn. Either choice would reduce the need to borrow.
Systemically, we need to promote, not discourage students working, earning and saving. The current FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) process uses the student’s and parents’ earnings and assets to determine their eligibility level for government grants, scholarships and loans. The more the student has worked and saved in high school the lower their eligibility. Parental savings also lowers their child’s eligibility. The system penalizes the behavior we should be advocating: the student and parents being personally responsible.
If that weren’t bad enough, most university, business and private scholarships use the FAFSA system as a significant factor in their decision making, further discouraging responsible behavior.
The need-based scholarship is academically de-motivating to both ends of the equation. Why should the student, who has worked and saved for college, strive to maximize their grades when their having saved reduces their eligibility for a scholarship. The student possessing genuine need, for whatever reason, isn’t motivated to excel, because their need will assure them financial help.
A need-based system promotes other undesirable behavior. I had students who worked but chose a new car or exorbitant senior spring vacation rather than have it appear as an asset. Parents would temporarily change ownership of assets, create a trust or delay income to reduce their FAFSA level. They were playing the system by the rules provided, but hardly the behavior we should be promoting or role-modeling.
One might argue students should maximize their effort to increase their learning. True. But remember, they are teenagers. Most of us didn’t think in that manner at that age.
Individually, high school graduates need to be more responsible in their decision-making. College isn’t only preparation for career, it’s preparation for life. You are proving not only to potential employers but yourself that you are prepared for a productive career and life as an independent individual.
College isn’t subsidized partying. Everyone’s life needs fun, but it shouldn’t be your college major. Do your part to finance your education. Part 1 is work during the summer. There is usually time to work during college. Part 2 is saving. It doesn’t help if you spend all your earnings.
Understand opportunity cost. Spending $500 on spring break, means six days of not working. $700 in lost earnings means the opportunity cost was $1,200. Not an insignificant figure.
Beyond reducing debt, work facilitates your career. Few employers will consider graduates without work experience. Why should they hire someone who has yet to prove they can handle the basics: showing up on time, proper appearance, getting along with fellow employees and clients, demonstrating initiative and work ethic.
Employers are also tricky. Determining work ethic in an interview is difficult. They can’t ask, “Do you work hard?”; the answer is obvious. Instead “College is expensive, how much did you have to borrow?” A straightforward, not illogical question. A debt level exceeding your earnings doesn’t demonstrate initiative.
“Spring breaks were fun when I was in college. What did you do?” The employer isn’t looking for Ft. Lauderdale, he’s looking for, “I worked that week.” Working when it’s inconvenient demonstrates work ethic better than any words.
Choose an education facilitating an available career. A degree plan includes courses exploring a new interest, but they shouldn’t dominate. Each one costs money, takes time and an excess will delay your graduation. Remember, nearly 75% change majors before they graduate, meaning you have taken courses not part of your degree plan.
Parents aren’t exempt from responsibility in their child’s educational indebtedness. We must facilitate the education of our children and their developing a career. It doesn’t matter if your parents didn’t help us. It requires sacrifice, but it’s part of the deal. A combination of our savings, facilitating our children saving their earnings and their work toward scholarships will facilitate minimizing the need for debt.
It’s our personal responsibility to overtly encourage logical change and effort from post-secondary institutions, the educational financing system and the individual to enable graduation and career without unreasonable debt.
Bryan Whiting feels most of our issues are best solved by personal responsibility and an understanding of non-partisan economics rather than by government intervention. Comments and column suggestions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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