THE NEW YORKER: The Real Student-Debt Crisis

Career College Central Summary:

  •  If you’re reading this, “college” may connote a very expensive, four-year residential institution where one comes of age, acquires what one hopes will become an impressive lifelong credential and a network of useful friends, and learns at least something of the liberal arts. But this version of college represents a tiny and completely atypical corner of higher education, most of which is public rather than private, doesn’t try to house its students, teaches mainly job skills, and doesn’t cost so very much. Average tuition in public colleges is still less than ten thousand dollars a year. Even at private colleges, the average sticker price is about thirty thousand dollars, and most students pay less than that.
  • Because élites have a thumb on the scale of public discourse, discussions of student debt too often assume that it’s acquired at private liberal-arts institutions. In fact, the main drivers of student debt—which has recently risen to the attention-getting sum of a trillion dollars—are the rapid growth of for-profit, mostly online education institutions, where ninety per cent of students take on debt, completion rates are low, and default rates are high; substantial cuts by state legislatures in their support for public universities; and the stubborn fact that, for most people, going to college continues to pay off economically, effectively doubling lifetime earnings.
  • The critic Lee Siegel, in a much-discussed recent piece in the Times, defiantly admitted that he had defaulted on the debt he’d accumulated on his way to an Ivy League education. The feeling of having been wronged, somehow, by going in the hole to pay for a degree, especially in the humanities, that has not generated the fulfilled, amply compensated adult life that one may have expected is now common. But the majority version of the debt problem is actually easier to solve than the boutique version. The Obama Administration recently decided, mercifully, to forgive the debt of people who had gone to Corinthian Colleges, a bankrupt for-profit. The Administration has been tightening its lending standards for for-profit colleges—private businesses that are completely dependent on the federal government’s lending system—for years, and rightly so. That is where the problem of bad, unsustainable debt mainly resides.
  • Meanwhile, the most expensive and prestigious nonprofit colleges—numerically few, but large in mindshare—are experiencing a kind of cognitive dissonance around cost and debt. A handful of the three thousand bachelor’s-degree-granting institutions in the United States are rich enough to maintain a no-debt policy for the students they choose to admit. The next-richest couple of hundred have been raising their prices at a rate higher than inflation, and their students’ debt has been rising, too, though not to anywhere near the crushing level that the rhetoric around the issue implies. The average student who borrows to attend college graduates with just under thirty thousand dollars in debt (at private nonprofit colleges, it’s thirty-two thousand three hundred dollars)—a daunting burden for a twenty-two-year-old, though it’s still only a little more than the average amount of a car loan.

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