By Daniel M. Asquino, Ph.D. and Gail E. Carberry, Ed.D.
The bright red cover of the August issue of Consumer Reports features this prominent quote: “I kind of ruined my life by going to college.” These are the words of 32-year-old registered nurse Jackie Krowen of Portland, Oregon. Ms. Krowen, it seems, has $152,000 in student loan debt. Even with a good job, her debt seems insurmountable. She explains, “Buying a house isn’t an option … and the idea of having a family seems financially impossible.” She fears it will be that way for the rest of her life.
This would be sad even if Jackie was the exception rather than the rule, but that is not the case. Her story is repeated over and over again across these United States. The article notes that 42 million people now owe $1.3 trillion in student loan debt. The average national student loan debt is now $28,950 per student, while here in Massachusetts, it is $29,391. For many, the actual sum can be upwards of $50,000, $100,000 or even more because of high interest rates extended over a lengthy period of time.
Whatever happened to the American Dream of obtaining a college education free of bone-crushing debt?
While a college degree is not absolutely essential for a good job and a wage that can support a family – one can achieve this goal by learning a skill or obtaining a credential – education is indeed the great equalizer, making the current state of affairs so very tragic. The Consumer Reports article, written in collaboration with revealnews.com, lays blame on private loan industry practices, increasing college costs, lack of financial literacy, and state governments that underfund public institutions of higher education, which has forced colleges and universities to raise tuition and fees to cover shortfalls.
This crisis has been decades in the making, following the privatization of the student loan industry in the 1980s that shifted the burden onto the backs of students because of fewer subsidized options and more aggressive interest and repayment options from private lenders.
With student debt of this magnitude, a solution must be found and soon. Our communities and our nation can ill afford to lose a generation of young people who are discouraged from pursuing the dream of raising a family and purchasing a home because of crushing student debt. It is further complicated because it will require change on many levels.
Congress must think about increasing the dollar amount of grants awarded to students through the Pell Grant program to offset their education costs and/or moving to the idea of free community college for qualifying students who maintain good grades. Congress and the president must also hold the states responsible for maintaining their funding level for public systems inclusive of inflation and cost of living increases.
The higher education business model needs innovative changes, as well. States must provide flexibility to higher education institutions that wish to adopt new platforms for learning. For instance, like K-12 charter schools, colleges could embrace innovative models by operating as “charter colleges.” For example, Mount Wachusett Community College and Quinsigamond Community College offer dual enrollment programs that provide high school students with a free associate degree and high school diploma. Other colleges could pursue their own innovative strategies designed to meet their specific community needs. And all institutions should be held accountable for results and rewarded for their creativity absent burdensome central regulations.
Families and potential students must be provided with the financial literacy skills to make the right choice with regard to college. They must think hard about what they can afford and what a potential debt will mean to them after they graduate. Both MWCC and QCC offer free, financial literacy programs to provide individualized service to students and their families to help navigate the process.
Lastly, we need to find a way and the means to enhance and promote loan forgiveness programs in exchange for public service or critical job access.
Recently, Massachusetts adopted the Commonwealth Commitment guaranteeing students a baccalaureate degree for $30,000, or less, and 10-percent rebates each semester if they begin at a community college, maintain a certain grade point average and then transfer to a state university or the UMass system. A year before this 2+2 statewide initiative, the four public institutions in Worcester County – MWCC, QCC and Worcester State and Fitchburg State universities – adopted the $30K Commitment, which provides similar cost savings.
This is a good beginning, but families must make wise choices. It might be that a private college with a special program, or which provides a large tuition discount, would be a better choice. The fundamental questions are:
What skill, credential or degree do I need to obtain the job or vocation I desire?
What is the best route to acquire them, and at what cost?
How much can I afford to borrow if necessary, and what will it cost after I graduate?
There is no quick fix and we must stop trying to tweak the system at the fringes. The system requires radical transformation. At stake is the economic growth of our community and our nation, and the fiscal health and economic stability of our students.
Daniel M. Asquino has served as president of Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner since 1987; Gail E. Carberry has served as president of Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester since 2006.