Okay, student debt is something of a crisis. About 43 million Americans owe a total of something like $1.7 trillion dollars in this type of debt, which, it is claimed at least, is due to the high cost of an education. I suspect that part of the reason for this is that so many more students go to college now, as opposed to the past. I have seen figures which suggest that, at present, about 14.66 million folks attend public colleges and about 5.15 million go to private ones; meaning about 19.81 million students total. In 1966, about the time Bonnie and I graduated, 4.35 million attended public institutions and 2.04 million went to private ones; or about 6.39 million total. That’s more that three times as many are now students as were then. Like it or not, that’s going to increase costs because three times the students need to be provided with classrooms, housing, faculty, etc.
In the same period, I know, based on information I received while I was Chair of the Faculty at Western, that many (I was led to believe MOST) of the states who own the vast majority of public universities, tended to reduce their per student support for their state schools. The best information I have at present is somewhat limited, but “State appropriations per full-time student have fallen from an inflation-adjusted $8,489 in 2007 to $7,642 in 2017, the last period for which the figures are available, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, or SHEEO.” That means that, “State” schools must engage with an increasing number of students with fewer resources. That puts a greater burden on the student and, of course, his/her family. On the other hand, college was NEVER free, except under the most unusual circumstances affecting VERY few students.
The major example used in the “Sunday Morning” story I saw was a twenty-eight-year-old woman who now works for “the government,” lives in a basement apartment with her boyfriend and owes “around $280,000.” The story said that, “She followed the classic recipe for success, by graduating from Penn State. But now, she's facing down decades' worth of debt.” That seems pretty obvious. $280,000 is a lot of money to owe.
Of course, there is a great deal we don’t know (and CBS didn’t tell us) which could have had at least some impact on this situation. Penn State is, of course, a STATE university. Was this student from “in-state” or “out-of-state?” That DOES make a difference, frequently, quite a substantial one. Anyway, I looked up the current estimated costs on the Penn State web site and this is what I found. An in-state student should expect tuition and fees to cost about $34,500 for two semesters, while an out-of-state student should expect to pay about $52,000 for the same period. Penn suggests that the costs of travel, personal expenses, texts and supplies can vary from about $1800 to about $5,000 per year, which seems to allow for a lot of variation, but it’s what they quoted. Apparently, at least some of that variation depends on the program/major/discipline. Room and board (on campus housing and meals in dining halls) are the same cost for all at about $12,000.
As I figure it, an in-state student in a low-cost discipline would pay about $34,500 for tuition, $1800 for expenses, and $12,000 for housing and board. That’s a total of about $48,300 for one academic year (two semesters). Now, an out-of-state student in a high cost discipline would pay $52,000 for tuition, perhaps $5000 for expenses, and $12000 for housing. That’s a total of $69,000 for the same academic year. A difference of $20,700 per year.
Assuming 4 years (eight semesters) to graduation, our mythical in-state student will spend about $193,200 total, while that mythical out-of-state student will have spent $276,000 for his/her degree.
Okay, these ARE CURRENT estimates (which I would suggest means that they are probably on the low side, but are likely higher than these costs were ten years ago). BUT, they ARE the figures available to work with and while there HAS been some inflation, it does appear quite possible (considering the costs of loans) that this student’s $280,000 debt isn’t all that surprising, if essentially ALL of her funding was borrowed.
Personally, I would fault CBS for not giving us the specific information we need to actually understand the example they have provided. Was this young lady a resident of Pennsylvania, or a student who went to Penn State from say, San Francisco, where she currently resides? Did she seek any scholarship support to assist in paying her costs? Did she work while in school to help support herself (as many students do)? Did her parents contribute towards paying for her education? NONE of these questions were asked, nor answered.
It was said that she now “works for the government.” What does that mean? What does she do? Did she major in something which was related to what she does, or in something which has little bearing on her employment? It was also stated that she “…lives in San Francisco.” I looked it up and salary.com says that the cost of living in San Francisco is more than 86% higher than the national average. Perhaps she could pay down her debt a bit faster, if she lived somewhere with lower costs? Even if she had to commute.
I also found it noteworthy that she was quoted, when speaking about the effect her debt was having on her life, as saying, "We can't go out as much as we used to for dinners, and we can't take as much trips as we want to unless it's in our budget. So, it does affect us.” When asked if college was worth it for her, she said, "I mean, I had fun in college. It was a great experience. But for the lifetime of debt I'm gonna be living with … (sighs) That's so hard. That's such a difficult question.” Perhaps the possibility of educational debt is a question which she should have considered prior to going to college?
Okay, I will admit to some (perhaps a lot of) prejudice here and it is true that things have changed a good bit since the mid-1960s when I graduated from undergraduate school. And, I have to acknowledge that I was fortunate enough to have parents who could (and did) finance the vast majority of my undergraduate education, although they were NOT rich. I didn’t have a car of my own until I was in my Junior year and it was a 1954 Plymouth sedan which ran, but was certainly neither new or fancy. Like all Freshmen, I lived in the dorm and ate in the cafeteria. Later, I lived in a room in a rooming house, and I was always on a pretty strict budget, so I didn’t go out to eat or to movies, etc., much. Of course, I was pretty busy working on, or being in, theatre productions and I could (and did) usher to get a free seat to those productions I wasn’t directly involved with. I had a good time, but my life was more than somewhat spartan.
I, basically, put myself through grad school by getting a “fellowship” as a member of the part-time, semi-professional, touring Indiana Theatre Company (which came with free tuition for my MA classes) and a small stipend, which was most of my financial support. When Bonnie and I got married, it was “on the cheap.” I couldn’t buy her a diamond ring to be engaged, we got married in her grandfather’s church, she bought her bridal dress on sale, and our reception was in the church basement meeting room with a cake and punch. We lived in a used 10x50’ mobile home in Bloomington with an 8x12’ roll-out” expansion of the living room which Bonnie got her folks (not rich either) to buy for us with the provision that we pay them back (which we did) while Bonnie supported herself working retail in a local department store (where I ended up working while I finished my MA thesis after 2 years of part-time classes thanks to the ITC. Much of that time, we drove my ’54 Plymouth.
After I finished my Master’s degree, I got a job with Theatre 65 - The Children’s Theatre of Evanston as Technical Director and sharing Scenic and Lighting Design responsibilities, while Bonnie worked for Washington National Insurance Company because my income couldn’t support us and Bonnie wanted something to do anyway, as opposed to staying in our one-bedroom apartment while I was working on productions all day, many nights and a fair number of weekends. And, we needed the money. Then, the local school district closed the theatre after I had been there two years, so I had to (quickly) look elsewhere, ending up at WCU, where Bonnie found part-time work until Kate was born.
The first few years at Western weren’t a whole lot less busy, but we did manage to get a few dollars ahead so that I could do my PhD class work at The University of Georgia because it was close to Cullowhee (which came in VERY handy after completing my classwork while I was writing my dissertation) and I got a good assistantship managing the Fine Arts Auditorium on the UGA campus, which gave me free tuition and a small stipend so that we could afford (barely) to live in married student housing and survive on our few savings while Kate was a wee babe.
Much of this, of course may sound like sour grapes, but it isn’t intended to be such. We were (relatively speaking) poor, but we got along. However, we knew the difference between luxuries and necessities, so for a good many years, we didn’t go out to dinner or take many trips because we couldn’t afford it. My job kept me busy and Bonnie raised the girls, kept the house running, and built up a fair craft business and, eventually, part-time employment with Dogwood Crafters in Dillsboro. A busy life, hard at times, but we managed and I don’t think we suffered, even if we didn’t make a lot of “vacation” trips except to see (and stay with) family. We didn’t really miss going out to dinner with great frequency because there weren’t many options for doing that in Sylva (Hardee’s really didn’t count) and my theatre schedule didn’t give us too many opportunities, in any event. Later, we DID go out for lunch in Asheville every 4-6 weeks, or so, when we’d go up there to go shopping, as Sylva didn’t even have a Wal-Mart in those days. Eventually, when the girls got older, Bonnie worked at Western in various jobs, ending as Secretary to the Honors College. But, I’m getting distracted by my annoyance at someone who seems to feel that her education is much less important than enjoying the “entitled” life style she seems to think she deserves.
Towards the end of my career, from 2006 to 2010, I served as Chair of the Faculty of Western which meant I was President of the Faculty Senate. As such, I had fairly frequent meetings with several of the highest administrators and learned (or had reinforced) a lot of the truth about “higher education” in the US. That was a while ago, but I suspect that it really hasn’t changed that the “average” student (whatever THAT means) changes major more than once during their college career. (Actually the number I remember was 2.3 times, but that always seemed a little high to me and I couldn’t source it.) According to Peter Cappelli, an acclaimed expert in employment trends, the workforce, and education, only 40% of full-time college students — less than half — graduate in four years. This seems plausible to me considering the numbers I heard from the administrators I met with frequently. In fact, as I remember it, it was the five-year graduation rate that was most commonly discussed in academic circles, potentially adding an additional 25% to the total cost. Of course, at Western, there were MANY students who were the first generation of their families to go to college at all, which also poses challenges.
Because student numerical growth is quite frequently used as a measure for a university’s institutional success, many schools have, certainly in the last twenty years, emphasized the idea of education as job training. I know I have seen billboards, etc., advertising many schools as producing graduates who are “Job ready on day one!”, or some such catch phrase. The idea, of course is that college prepares you for the workforce, an idea which actually goes back to the 1950s and 60s. As Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, points out, only about 8% of Americans had a college degree in the early 1960s. "And now it's getting close to 40%. So, it's a big difference. You were pretty special in the 1960s if you had a college degree.” What he doesn’t say (or at least isn’t quoted as saying) is that that is no longer true. College graduates are, really, not all that ”special.” And, I would suggest, that wasn’t REALLY true back “in the day.”
I don’t know how many times I heard it said, back in “those” days, but it was a common saying (and belief) that business and industry wanted liberal arts graduates for higher management positions because those people could learn how the company did things. They didn’t want people who would try to do things “by the book,” they wanted people who had proven that they could learn. In fact, it was widely stated that businesses didn’t want College of Business graduates for top-level positions, they wanted people who could “think and communicate,” which was said to mean liberal arts majors. Business majors would end up in “middle” management, and engineers might be hired to create new stuff, but the “people who ran the business” needed different (liberal arts) skills and could learn how “we do it.”
So, as the number of people wanting to go to college increased, universities started and continued the expansion of “Colleges” of every sort of thing you can think of. In almost all cases, these “colleges” have some sort of requirements which reflect the idea (which dates from the Renaissance or earlier) that a college degree is supposed to encourage what is referred to as a “liberal” education. But, most people don’t consider THOSE courses to be of much real importance and they are frequently minimized and deemphasized. Still, it might be a good idea to consider what “liberal education” means!
The Association of American Colleges and Universities says, “A liberal education is a system or course of education suitable for the cultivation of a free (Latin: liber) human being. It is based on the medieval concept of the liberal arts or, more commonly now, the liberalism of the Age of Enlightenment." It has been described as “a philosophy of education that empowers individuals with broad knowledge and transferable skills, and a stronger sense of values, ethics, and civic engagement ... characterized by challenging encounters with important issues, and more a way of studying than a specific course or field of study.”
Personally, I prefer the definition of The American Association for the Advancement of Science which describes a liberal education in this way: "Ideally, a liberal education produces persons who are open-minded and free from provincialism, dogma, preconception, and ideology; conscious of their opinions and judgments; reflective of their actions; and aware of their place in the social and natural worlds.” Liberally educated people are skeptical of their own traditions; they are trained to think for themselves rather than conform to higher authorities.
Of course, these days, many right-wing politicians will argue, like the grandfather of one prospective Western student, that he didn’t know about this “liberal” education idea because he was a conservative and didn’t care for “liberalism.” Well, if being a “conservative” means that we should try to maintain, or recreate, the world of the past, then I’m going to disagree quite strongly. I would also suggest that it has been, for a VERY long time, considered that the fundamental purpose of education is education.
Certainly I have no major objections to one acquiring skills which can be related to employment along the way, but if what we want is “job training,” there is relatively little need for most people to be truly educated. In fact, one can earn quite a good living, I am told, by being a plumber, carpenter, electrician, welder, etc., without any real need for much actual education. Training, yes, but a lot of education doesn’t seem to be necessary. Perhaps we, as a society, should recognize that we have redefined the “Middle Class” solely on the basis of income instead of including the other traditional factors of occupation, education and social status. On the basis of the most recent census, you would be considered “middle class” if your income was between ≈$45,000 and ≈$135,000 a year. I think it’s worth noting that these limits exclude many of the professionals (doctors, lawyers, managers, politicians, etc.) which used to define the “middle class.” Apparently, they are now the “upper” class of our “everybody’s equal” society. Of course, they don’t think they are, but, when you include, two, or more, cars, the boat, the lake “cottage,” the cruises, the RV, etc., one does start to wonder….
I would suggest that we, as a group, need to engage in some serious thinking about what we really desire from our educational system. If what we want is “job training” and sports teams, there are probably better, cheaper ways to accomplish that. If we want research institutions (which is, in fact, where MANY universities put their real emphasis), it probably isn’t necessary that so many states sponsor so many of them. But, if what we want are self-aware people who have a relatively broad knowledge base and “… are open-minded and free from provincialism, dogma, preconception, and ideology; conscious of their opinions and judgments; reflective of their actions; and aware of their place in the social and natural worlds,” then we need to figure out a way to achieve that which is both affordable and accessible to more people. Perhaps we should even go back to making it a major priority of our various governments! If we want an educated public, perhaps we need to do more to support public education.
After all, if what we wish is for EDUCATED people, then all those “General Ed” courses aren’t “frills,” but an important part of the process of education. They AREN’T “throwaway” courses just added to the major which aren’t really of much real use, they are the center of one’s education. The major exists as a means to achieve a greater depth of knowledge in some specific facet of learning. It’s a PART of an education, not its sole point.
Convincing ourselves of this truth will not be easy. First, we have to accept the idea that this is what we want/need. Then, we have to take on the difficult task of providing an educational process which will allow the American Experiment in democracy to succeed against the forces which would have us all just “shut up and do as we are told!” Success in this endeavor will not be easy, but I think it is possible, if we decide to do it and are willing to pay the price to make it happen, but we NEED to make that decision. What we currently have isn’t really accomplishing either of these options all that successfully. I know which option I prefer, but I also know that I can’t resolve this issue by myself.
As to the “Sunday Morning” interviewee who started me on this rant; it’s hard to decide if her degree was worth the cost without any idea as to whether it has had any impact on her career. Apparently it’s not supporting her as she would wish, but we don’t know if that had any bearing on her choice of institution, major, job prospects, or interests. My guess is that she may well have really been seeking an “Mrs” degree, which she hasn’t received yet. If that’s the case, the actual degree probably wasn’t worth the cost, but it almost certainly wouldn’t have been in any case.
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic; capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” ―Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows