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College Debt: Why Is It Necessary?

April 10, 2007

The Chicago Tribune ran an op-ed this past Sunday from a student who just finished paying off her college loan debts. The student, Alexandra Obregon, owed a comparatively small sum ($5,500 originally, $6230 after interest) – at least compared to me and others I know. She paid her debt in only seven years.

The overall student debt figures in her story are worth reflection. Obregon reported the following: “In 2004, undergraduates at public institutions graduated with an average of $14,671 in federal loan debt, up from $8,226 in 1993, according to the American Council on Education’s Center for Policy Analysis. For those attending private colleges, the average was $17,125 in 2004 compared with $12,639 in 1993.” Of course these numbers do not account for graduate or professional education debt.

For public institutions, this amounted to about a 75% increase in only 11 years! For private colleges, the increase was less than 50% – outrageous but not as shocking as the public institution numbers. With another three years on the books, I’m sure these numbers have only risen.

Why is it that loans and debt have become the answer when the credential, the college degree, is increasingly seen as necessary for middle-class life? I fully realize that one can become a member of the middle and upper classes without a degree, but isn’t it the overall education our society values?

One of the problems in admitting the necessity of college for gaining a well-rounded education is that it involves a corollary admission about the inadequacy of secondary schools. Debates about the quality of secondary and lower education have been ongoing since the late 1970s. It seems to me that the United States, on the whole, is simply reluctant to admit that high school is the new middle school (or junior high). If we acknowledge high school as only a stepping stone, then we would be forced into providing more funding for higher education. [Note: Christopher Miller pondered the blurring between college and high school here in February.]

Until these realities about college and high school education are acknowledged, we will continue – with loans and debt – to create an undergraduate class system of haves and have nots. The potential problems of that system are speculated upon in this Boston Globe article. And of course a higher education class system will perpetuate the United States’ already forming, two-tiered economic class system (discussed here recently in relation to historians). All of this will continue no matter the smattering of under-educated entrants into the United States’ economic middle-class.

Finally, even if our economic middle class possesses sufficient cash strength, what of its sense of responsibility to the civic common good? Does a high school education sufficiently instill that sensibility? Does college not help one understand their civic responsibilities better? Why? If it does, again, then why wouldn’t we want to perpetuate the numbers of those desiring that education? – TL

P.S. – And concerns about college debt might seem less shrill if we didn’t have the attendant problem, articulated well by the New America Foundation’s Higher Ed Watch weblog, of aspirants also getting screwed on the cost of carrying debt! – TL

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