A Worthy Investment

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There is a great deal of ranting and raving about student loan forgiveness. There is also a great deal of misunderstanding about the cost of a college education and how disproportionate it is to the salaries that students receive after graduation. Most people who are complaining point to the fact they they either decided not to pursue a degree or they paid for theirs with summer jobs and part time work. They find it unfair to suddenly decide to give the current crop of debt holders a break. While I can understand their concerns, I’d like to point to the realities of today’s college experience to demonstrate the unusual difficulties that so many of our college graduates are enduring. 

Let’s begin with the post World War II experience. Young men were returning from the war to a booming economy in the United States. Not even the lack of a high school diploma barred individuals from getting good jobs with benefits that were often free along with a promised pension. Veterans were able to earn college degrees at the government’s expense, sometimes in courses taken at night while still working all day. Actually having a degree or needing one for employment was more of a luxury than a requirement.

By the late sixties when I was a student the cost of a year of college at a state university without room and board added was around a thousand dollars. My first year was free because I had a scholarship, but I was a rookie and did not realize that I had to fill out paperwork to renew it even though I had a 4.0 GPA. I lost my free ride, but I had worked during the summer for around $200 a month and I was able to cover all of the first semester and I supplemented my funds with a four hour a week teachers’ aide job. All in all I doubt I paid more than about five thousand dollars for my education. Paying as I went was not all that difficult back then. 

In the late nineteen eighties and early nineteen nineties my daughters went to college at state public universities. I was shocked by the increase in the price tag because it was not proportionate to the gains my husband and I had made in our income. I was a teacher and he was a banker but we still had to take out loans to get both of them through their business and environmental science degrees. We watched the cost of the college climb exponentially in the eight years that our daughters were there. When they graduated with usually sought after degrees there was a downturn in the economy that left them scurrying to find employment of any kind at salaries that were not proportionate to the cost of their diplomas. It took about ten years to pay off the debt which essentially doubled over time because of interest rates.  

Fast forward to today and the picture for young people is even more gloomy. Few jobs are available for high school dropouts. Most entry level jobs require a four year degree and those do not come cheaply. In fact, just getting into a public university is incredibly difficult. Many like the University of Texas, where one of my daughters went, are essentially closed for anyone not in the top seven to ten percent of their high school class. Further culling is done for specific majors like engineering or business. The same is true for Texas A&M. Even the University of Houston which was once considered a fall back school is now out of reach for most students. Then comes the cost.

I was able to send my eldest daughter to the University of Texas with room and board for about seven thousand dollars in her freshman year. That represented a third of my teacher’s salary before taxes and deductions. By the time she graduated the price had increased to ten thousand dollars which came to about fifty percent of what I earned. We paid progressively more for the youngest daughter to attend Texas A&M University. We watched the exponential growth of tuition and fees in horror. Now those same schools can cost as much as forty thousand dollars a year with housing and food. Students without scholarships may leave with a huge debt to pay with a starting salary of fifty to seventy thousand dollars a year. Accounting for the cost of living and the deductions from their pay, they are living on the edge even after working hard to fulfill the American dream.

I have former students who competed for spots in some of the top business schools in America and were hardworking enough to earn those coveted places. Then they graduated only to realize that the promised rewards of high paying jobs for practical majors were not forthcoming. They found themselves paying a third of their salaries for housing, a tenth for medical benefits, and another tenth for their student loans. If they added deductions for social security, taxes and medicare they were barely making it from month to month, especially since the cost of food and gasoline had also risen. Some of them even got caught in the downturn caused by the pandemic or the oil bust, and graduated at a time when few jobs were available. I know of a student with a petroleum engineering degree whose graduation coincided with massive layoffs at oil companies. He went to work as a laborer on an oil rig hoping that he would land a job when things improved, but he missed his window of opportunity and now works at low level jobs well beneath his capabilities. He still has his student loans to pay and is drowning. 

We thought nothing of forgiving PPP loans for business people who more often than not did not pass on their good fortune either to their employees or their customers. Even our former president has escaped loans and forfeited payments with legal maneuverings and bankruptcy. We don’t seem to get nearly as angry about that kind of forgiveness as we do with our generation of college students who believed that they had to get degrees to be engineers, accountant, teachers, nurses in spite of the prohibitive costs. There was no way that they might have paid as they went because it would have required full time jobs to earn the kind of money that they needed. So the took out loans.

My granddaughter was accepted to Cornell this past spring. It had been her dream to go there since she was very young. The price tag for this Ivy League university was well beyond her means or those of her family. She kept the acceptance letter as a memento and chose a more reasonable alternative. She wrote over one hundred essays to various groups offering scholarships and won enough of them to shave the cost of her education in half for at least her freshman year. She worked all summer as a receptionist at a beauty salon and sometimes even washed hair. There is nothing lazy or spoiled about her but she will still have a very large debt to pay on the day that she graduates. As compassionate Americans we need to be willing to fix the glaring problems associated with earning a college without jealousy or contempt for the young people who only want to be prepared to take on the challenges of the future.. It is a worthy investment for us all to give them a fighting chance to begin families and purchase homes like we did. Our nation depends on them to take on the difficult jobs that require their knowledge and skills.