What do you think should be at the top of the list of impediments to students choosing a liberal education?” One hears a lot of suggestions:
Poor understanding of the term “liberal”?
Poor understanding of the term “education”?
Inadequate course offerings?
Weak curricular / advising structures?
Lousy job market?
Excessive media emphasis on entry level jobs?
High debt levels?
After reading Michelle Singletary “Carefully Consider Taking on Student Debt” in yesterday’s Boston Globe (http://www.boston.com/business/personal-finance/2013/05/25/lesson-student-loans/7NwlL8V5JAadw9gE7rA0xH/story.html ) I am inclined to check the last item in the list. She points out there are now more than 38 million student loan borrowers (some many years out of college), and more than $1.1 trillion (yes, “trillion” is right) in outstanding debt. And while Americans were “de-leveraging” in other ways, that is paying down their debt, student loan balances for households have been rising – almost 15% between 2007 and 2010.
There are plenty more statistics to show the scale of this debt. But what about its implications? I don’t know of any good studies of what it means when it comes time to choose a job, but Singletary reflects the thinking of many students when she writes,” Many graduates can’t go in any direction they choose. They have to take any job they can get.” The pressure doesn’t start at graduation. Surely it’s already there when course and major selections are being made.
What can individual faculty members do? First of all, know the facts about one’s own institution. This can easily be done by clicking on the map developed by the Project on Student Debt at http://projectonstudentdebt.org/state_by_state-data.php. You can go state by state and institution . Here are thumbnails of a few institutions in Massachusetts showing the percentage of students graduating with debt and the average total of that debt:
Amherst College: 41% , $12,713
Boston University: 57% , $36,408
Harvard University: 34%, $11760
Northeastern: Not reporting
Smith College: 65%, 22531
U Mass, Amherst: 69%, $26,893
Wellesley College: 52%, $13,579
Williams College: 44%, $9,801
In North Carolina, the other state I checked the variation in the amount of debt was especially wide among historically black institution, -- 100% of students graduating with an average debt of $46,673 at one, 93% with $12,652 at another.
Second, we all have to think really hard, it seems to me, about ways to keep student loans from going even higher. I can’t see how that can be done without more creative efforts to keep total costs down. Tuition drives debt. That may mean a reversal in current ways of thinking about quality. Is bigger really better? Is greater expenditure the only road to greater success?