Student debt is a complex challenge

Media attention to student debt intensified when President Biden announced student debt forgiveness. The economic effects of student debt, rising costs of higher education, fraud and abuse by some for-profit institutions, and defaults fuel political maneuvering and heated criticism. This column is not a rehash of politics or a critique of colleges and universities.

The systemic causes of student debt will not go away. We are facing very complex and intractable challenges.

Demographic changes threaten higher education. Fewer young people are in the pipeline for college and university. Families with the resources to pay for a college education have fewer children. Adapting to these changes is disruptive. Some tuition-driven colleges have closed.

Prospective college students represent “underserved communities”: poor, first generation, African American, Hispanic, recent immigrants, from failing school systems. Review enrollment in Indiana public schools. While each population is different, with special needs and resources, fewer students have financial and other support to graduate and repay loans. A significant percentage drop out of public schools and universities.

One result is that more students require intense attention from faculty and staff to help them overcome the challenges that lie ahead for college. Every year, our society leaves products of its failures at the doors of universities like orphans. Therefore, colleges must provide additional services for mental health, safety, study habits, remedial tutoring, and support courses that were not previously required for students to be successful.

Good education is expensive. The additional staff, services and expenses needed to enable students to learn and graduate will not go away anytime soon. Furthermore, the amount and sophistication of what students must learn to prepare for their future requires significant expenditure. President Garfield’s ideal education with “Mark Hopkins at one end and a student at the other” is long over; biology labs with frog, scalpel and basic microscope are archaic. The cost of essential laboratory equipment is astronomical. Teachers and students of all disciplines must have access to more elaborate resources to access and increase our rapidly expanding knowledge base.

Our colleges and universities are generally run with careful attention to student needs and better stewardship of resources than other institutions in our society. However, no student at any good college or university pays full costs, even one bringing in government grants and/or loans. Those who imply that universities can simply reduce tuition and fees without harming quality ignore contemporary realities in higher education.

Rising college costs are also due to rising expectations and demands from students and families. Students would laugh at primitive laboratories; they would rack up abuse from living in dorms, using facilities, or eating food that previously sustained students. Due to the demographic decline mentioned above, especially in families that can afford tuition and fees, colleges and universities are engaging in costly competition to meet rising expectations.

Delayed gratification fades: “Save now and delay until later” is replaced with “shop now and enjoy.” This new spirit floats in credit cards, easy loans and debt. Many students enter college already in debt and enslaved by their cars, trucks and luxury gadgets. Luxury fund loans. Families who can afford college find financial benefits in low-cost loans, whose repayment is delayed while students are full-time students. Without a significant change in ethos, the debts and defaults will continue.

One proposal is free university education, perhaps at community colleges. Good education is never free. The question is, who pays, when, why and for whom? Community colleges, as a general rule, are no better prepared to meet the challenges listed above. Online teaching and services replace the intense personal contacts that prospective students require. Past experience is that a significant number of community college students drop out and default on loans. For-profit colleges and technical schools have the worst dropout and non-compliance rates. Some for-profit companies are considered fraudulent. Nearly half of all students fail to earn a four-year degree. Most defaults and economic difficulties are concentrated in desertion.

We can begin to address systemic problems at the local level instead of focusing on quick political fixes that might create more problems than they solve. Ignore the uninformed criticism of our excellent higher education institutions. Supporting institutions like Wabash College, which provides financial and essential support for students, have resources to educate current and future students well, on a secure financial footing, and with a history and future of preparing students “to think critically.” , act responsibly, lead effectively”. and live humanely in a difficult world.” Oh yes, graduates score well in jobs, income, and satisfaction.

Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities Emeritus, contributed this guest column.

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