Across the United States, thousands of college students are graduating this month with a plethora of majors … and an inexcusable amount of debt. Sources indicate the average student borrower leaves school with nearly $30,000 in loans.
According to USA Today, skyrocketing tuition has made student loans the country’s second-largest form of debt, behind only mortgages, with 4.3 million young people owing $1.3 trillion! This is clearly unacceptable. In too many cases, young people saddled with that much financial burden are putting off major purchases like buying a house, if they can even afford paying rent in the meantime… and are living at home instead. This certainly is not good for the economy.
Numerous plans for alleviating this crisis are making the rounds. USA Today notes that at Purdue University, students pay a percentage of their post-graduation income rather than repaying the fixed amount of a loan. Known as the Income Share Agreement, the idea is to remove some of the risk students take on by having the college make a calculated investment in their future. While the federal government has a similar income-based repayment program, Purdue is counting on bringing in outside investors to help it pay for its program.
I commend Purdue for starting this program. And I am sure plenty of other universities have other ideas to try to curb students’ massive debt. That too, is good. The problem is, I don’t think ideas like this go far enough. Here are a few of mine.
* Make annual meetings mandatory with college guidance counselors. Too many students almost “blindly” it seems, pick a major with little thought as to what type of salary to expect, or how many jobs there are in the field. I am sure there are plenty of young people who do their “due diligence,” but I have personally witnessed numerous examples in which this is not the case. Rather than “assuming” the student knows what kind of work he or she is getting into, why not cut to the chase and make it standard fare for a counselor to present at least the basics such as typical starting wage in the field, number of projected available positions, etc? Hold these meetings each year to gauge progress in determining a major, coursework in it after selection, job prospects as graduation gets closer, etc. Such meetings should start in high school, not college – but even if they do occur before college, young people can change their minds a LOT about a possible profession at that young age, and they should be continued after high school.
* Make internships mandatory regardless of the major. Teaching is one profession that gets it right: Education majors have to teach in a classroom before they graduate. But what about others? I was a journalism major, and it never ceased to amaze me that unless a student was self-motivated enough to work for the university newspaper, or pursue a (not required) internship of some sort, it was entirely possible to graduate with zero non-classroom experience in journalism. How can someone know for sure if they want to pursue a job in a given field if they’ve never actually worked in it? Do you buy a car without taking it out for a test drive? Of course not! I’ve known far too many people who never worked a day in their chosen major, and that’s sad. Is that partly their fault for not giving this more thought? Of course it is. But others never got into it because they “thought” they knew what to expect, only to learn otherwise and, disillusioned, chose a different path. What a waste of time and money! Isn’t exposing young people to the work they will actually be doing in the profession a better idea? This notion isn’t foolproof to be sure, the pitfalls of a given field might not show up until later on, but I have to believe that more internships would still help.
* Siphon some of the truly enormous amounts of money major universities receive for basketball and football – into debt relief for students. Now I love college sports just like the next guy, and there is no doubt in my mind that good coaches, with winning programs, deserve a good salary in return for the money they bring into the university. But when a coach like Alabama’s Nick Saban earns a reported $7 million a year to coach the fabulously successful Crimson Tide football team, and legendary Duke hoops coach Mike Krzyzewski allegedly pulls in a cool $10 million a year for his services, that is WAY too much. What about giving Coach K a $2 million salary, still FAR from chump change, and earmark the remaining $8 million to a fund that Duke students could tap into, based on need, for tuition and other related expenses? A really good book out right now called “Indentured” proposes sharing the lavish, often exorbitant TV money that large universities receive with college athletes … in other words, paying them. I say, let’s take this one step further and for all practical purposes, “pay” all of the students (athlete or no) with a fixed percentage of the money earmarked for tuition and other school expenses. If basketball and football players are truly student-athletes, as has always been maintained, I say the NCAA and universities alike need to put their money where their mouth is. Smaller schools, of course, wouldn’t have as much money to dole out, but as BIG as collegiate sports is nationwide, my hunch is they could still afford some sort of financial reimbursement for their students.
* Chancellors, possibly even university professors, should take the lead and accept voluntary pay cuts, with part of their salaries earmarked for student debt relief. This idea may raise the hackles of some, but I think it’s an idea that needs to be brought up. According to salary.com, “the median annual chancellor salary is $259,933, as of April 26, 2016, with a range usually between $211,301 [and] $313,672.” This figure will vary widely depending on a variety of factors. The point is, throw in the perks like a free house in many cases (among others), and chancellors receive a whopping good deal. Should the leader of a university be paid well? Of course, no arguments there. But wouldn’t it set a terrific example, and be a GREAT PR move to boot, for the head of the university to take, say a 5% annual pay cut for a set period of time, let’s say 5 years, with the money used for student tuition? Maybe professors and other university officials would even follow this lead, meaning even more money for tuition relief, something beleaguered young people are in dire need of. I think it’d be a real morale booster for students to feel that university officials actually understand their plight, as opposed to just raising tuition!
* The federal government is most certainly also to blame. According to Chuck DeVore, a contributor to Forbes magazine, “A landmark 2015 study conducted by two researchers at the New York Federal Reserve Bank found that the flood of easy federal money into higher education had a predictable effect: higher tuition and fees. In fact, the research found that for every dollar of new subsidized loans, tuition went up by 65 cents.” The author says it is imperative to “get the federal government out of the business [of] giving ever-increasing amounts of money to virtually any student with a pulse to pay for ever-increasing college tuition.” I wholeheartedly agree.
In summary, the student loan crisis is a burden that will not prove easy to resolve, and no one is suggesting that colleges are solely to blame. As illustrated, clearly the feds as well as poor career decisions made by students have also contributed to the problem. This means addressing the issue requires a multi-pronged approach – but it’s one that has to include the colleges themselves to a greater extent than has been the case to date.