Let’s rebuild a secure path through education

By Frank Wessling

The sights and sounds of graduation will soon fill the land. High schools and colleges have arranged for speakers at ceremonies, ordered those mortarboard caps and flimsy gowns for the seniors, party plans are made and smiles of relief at reaching this goal can already be seen.

Commencement! Onward to a new stage in life.

But for the college graduate it’s too often onward with an anchor, a heavy load of debt. For those students receiving degrees for advanced study — masters and doctorates — the amount can be over $100,000.

The ordinary graduate of a four-year school last year carried an average of $24,000 in student loan debt. For those from lower-middle-class families the amount is higher, as they qualify for less in grants and must borrow more.

The trend is sharply upward for both the percentage of students who take on debt and the amount they carry. It is not unusual to hear people in their 30s talk about the student loans they are still paying off.

That burden affects students’ thinking and plans. For some, like those preparing to be teachers, there is incentive to follow that vocation because loan forgiveness is in it. But for most, the pressures to manage their debt cloud the vocational horizon. Going for the money, not the spiritual satisfaction, comes to feel like an imperative.

A college degree up to now has meant more income over a lifetime. This is supposed to justify the cost of that education and the debt burden it imposes. But that is no help to the low-income student who realizes halfway through college that she can’t continue because of money, and still has that debt as a dropout. It’s no help to the student who borrows to attend a for-profit vocational school and then can’t find the work he was trained for.

The grandparents of this generation’s students could get a college education in their youth for the price of one part-time job while going to school. We may never get back to days like that, but we should be alarmed at how far from them we’ve gone. Higher education has historically been seen as preparation for an expanding life of the mind. Today’s money pressures are reducing it to little more than very expensive vocational training.

There are no simple or easy ways to change the double trend of sharply rising college cost along with loading more of that cost onto students. It will probably take a strong political commitment led by a president of the United States to make us a national community which guarantees to every child the opportunity of a college degree without debt that inhibits life choices. This would be leadership and a goal worthy of a great people, even more than putting a man on the moon, or building a nationwide interstate highway network.

 In tough economic times like these the easy choice is to cut back. But educating our young is never something to reduce. We need to always see it as investment — and not simply for each individual young person, but for our society and its health. This may sound like a cliché, but its truth should still be self-evident: without investing in our children we eat them for lunch, for our own comfort and satisfaction.

As a society we trend more toward childless households. We also depend more and more on advertising that supports hedonistic, self-indulgent lifestyles. The spiritual winds don’t seem to favor the broad-based, self-discipline and self-sacrifice suggested here. That’s why leadership is crucial. If we want a bright future for the students of both today and tomorrow, if we want a future of peace and opportunity for this society, someone or some group must lead us to focus on rebuilding a secure path through education.

Not that education alone saves us. But an education for the art of living, as well as earning a living, is a gift every child deserves and every good society needs to provide.

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