Media attention on student debt intensified when President Biden announced the cancellation of student debt. The economic effects of student debt, rising costs of higher education, fraud and abuse by some for-profit institutions, and loan defaults are fueling political shenanigans and heated criticism. This column is not a political rehash or a critique of colleges and universities.
The systemic causes of student debt will not go away. We face very complex and intractable challenges.
Demographic changes threaten higher education. Fewer young people are on their way to college and university. Families with the resources to pay for a college education have fewer children. Adapting to these changes is disruptive. Some tuition-focused colleges have closed.
Prospective students represent “underserved communities” — poor, first-generation, African-American, Hispanic, recent immigrants, from failing school systems. Review Indiana Public School Enrollment. Although each population is distinct, with particular needs and resources, fewer students have financial and other support to graduate and repay loans. A large percentage of dropouts from public schools and colleges.
One result is that more students need intense attention from faculty and staff to help them overcome the challenges that stalk them in college. Every year, our society deposits the products of its failures at the gates of colleges as orphans. Therefore, colleges must provide additional mental health, safety, study habits, remedial tutoring, and course support services that were not previously necessary for student success.
A good education is expensive. The additional staff, services, and expenses needed to enable students to learn and graduate aren’t going away anytime soon. Additionally, the amount and sophistication of what students need to learn to prepare for their future requires significant expense. President Garfield’s ideal education with “Mark Hopkins on one side and a student on the other” is long gone; biology labs with frog, scalpel and basic microscope are archaic. The cost of essential laboratory equipment is astronomical. Faculty and students of all disciplines need access to more sophisticated resources to access and grow our rapidly expanding knowledge base.
Our colleges and universities are generally administered with special attention to student needs and better stewardship of resources than other institutions in our society. Nevertheless, no student of a good college or university pays the full cost, even if they bring government grants and/or loans. Those who imply that colleges can simply reduce tuition and fees without compromising quality ignore the contemporary realities of higher education.
The rising cost of college education is also due to growing expectations and demands from students and families. Students would laugh at primitive laboratories; they would rack up abuse by living in dorms, using facilities, or eating foods that previously supported students. Due to the previously mentioned demographic decline, especially in families who can afford tuition, colleges and universities are competing expensively to meet rising expectations.
Delayed gratification fades – “Save now and procrastinate” is replaced with “Buy now and enjoy”. This new philosophy floats over credit cards, easy loans and debt. Many students enter college already in debt and enslaved by their fancy cars, trucks, and gadgets. Loans finance luxury. Families who could afford tuition find low-cost loans financially beneficial, with payment delayed while students are full-time students. Without significant ethical change, the debts and defaults will continue.
One proposal is free college education, perhaps at community colleges. A good education is never free. The question is, who pays, when, for what and for whom? Generally, community colleges are not the best prepared to meet the challenges listed above. Online education and services replace the intense personal contact that future students need. Past experience shows that a significant number of community college students drop out and default on their loans. For-profit colleges and technical schools have the worst dropout and dropout rates. Some for-profit companies are found to be fraudulent. Nearly half of all students fail to complete a four-year degree. Most defaults and economic hardship are concentrated in defaults.
We can start solving systemic problems locally rather than focusing on political quick fixes that might create more trouble than they solve. Ignore misinformed criticism of our fine institutions of higher learning. Supporting institutions like Wabash College, which provides financial and essential support to students, has resources to educate current and future students well, with a secure financial foundation and with a history and future of preparing students “to think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively and live humanely in a difficult world. Oh yes, graduates do well in terms of employment, income and satisfaction.
Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Professor Emeritus of Humanities, contributed to this guest column.