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The high cost of college and resulting staggering amount of student debt is a crisis in higher education, grad-twobut it isn’t the only one.

Michael Crow, president at Arizona State University (ASU), points out that: “According to US Department of Education data, the ability to repay college loans depends more on whether a student graduated than on how much debt they are carrying. The research also found that students who don’t graduate are three times more likely to default on their loans than those who do.”

In a day and age in which most new jobs require some sort of post-secondary education, this is alarming news. According to Crow, the “completion crisis” requires taking a harder look at the chasm between enrollment and graduation. As but one example, ASU is addressing this issue through its eAdvisor, a digital tool that helps students keep track of their progress and remain on course to graduate.

Another solution, Crow explains, is through employer programs like Starbucks’ “College Achievement Plan”, which is “helping 25,000 Starbucks employees earn an ASU bachelor’s degree by 2025 with the tuition fully reimbursed.” Imagine what could be accomplished if many more employers and universities collaborated on similar initiatives, Crow says.

While these efforts are commendable, I don’t believe they go far enough. Here are a few additional suggestions:

* Whether they’re held online or in-person, mandate regular  meetings with a college guidance counselor. Far too many college students struggle in selecting a major. Rather than “assuming” the student knows what kind of work he or she plans on 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, and number of projected available jobs? Hold these meetings each year to gauge progress in determining a major, and then start tracking coursework after selection (such as through eAdvisor). Lastly, evaluate job prospects as graduation gets closer.

 

Rather than “assuming” the student knows what kind of work he or she plans on 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, and number of projected available jobs?

 

* Promote greater use of two-year colleges. Community colleges can enable students to get general ed. coursework out of the way while saving money by living at home. I started out at UW-Manitowoc County for two years before enrolling at UW-Oshkosh. At smaller campuses, students can save money by pocketing the cash they’d normally need for expenses like housing, and food. It also gets them in the habit of studying without the distractions of living away from home.

new-grads* Reduce the amount of coursework in classes totally unrelated to a given major. What does a music appreciation class have to do with a degree in engineering? Or a course in philosophy toward a business degree? Such classes were designed to give students a “liberal, well-rounded education” in other areas unrelated to a certain field. This idea was fine when college was much less expensive, and a degree in most any major could land you a decent job.

But in a day and age in which tuition is skyrocketing, and the ability to learn more about most any topic is only a mouse click away, I, for one, think this concept is dated. Students spend roughly two years’ in classes unrelated to their major. I say, reduce that to ONE year’s worth of requirements. (Two-year campuses would become either one-year schools, or students could take online coursework toward their degree in the second year.) In so doing, students would still learn about other subjects, but they’d save the cost of at least one full year’s tuition and other expenses.

* Enhance awareness of other post-secondary schools. This would need to occur more at the high school level, but in addition to the traditional four-year degree that is pushed way too often in my estimation, two-year degrees can also provide good paying jobs in fields like computer science, electronics, and scores of others. Back in my day, they were referred to as technical “institutes”, not technical “colleges”, but the idea is the same: zone in on a select field from the get go and get done with school much faster, and much cheaper.

Some would say this is a mistake because a four-year degree is worth a lot more financially later on in one’s career. I would point out this depends a LOT on the field! My brother-in-law, for instance, earned a two-year degree in computer science, and he made a great deal more money annually than either my wife or I earned in journalism or education.

* Finally, dispel the notion that there’s something wrong with a “gap year.” What makes more sense: a teen taking a “break” until having even “some” clue what he wants to do with his life, or continuing with school and spending money, and probably a lot of it, that he will have to repay at some point later on?

Regardless of whether the “gap year” involves working full time, traveling, or a hitch in the military, the idea would be to broaden one’s horizons and gain an appreciation of a solid work ethic, work experience, knowledge of other cultures and values, and gain greater confidence. These are all areas that will continue to come into play later. Done right, a gap year can be a year very well spent.

In short, the student debt issue is indeed a crisis in higher education, but it’s just part of a bigger picture. It’s a complex issue that requires a multi-pronged approach.

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