in Higher Ed

The future of selling degrees

Agnes Scott College
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I was just reading “Help, My Degree is Underwater: In a recession, does advanced education really pay off?” and one part of it touched on an issue that I’ve heard time and time again from people who’ve completed just one degree, much less two or more:

Suddenly, it seems to me that there is a real possibility that I, like tens of thousands of others, am holding onto a degree that is actually underwater. Look at student loans, the opportunity cost of taking two (business) or four (law) or eight (medicine) years off of your working life, add in a horde of other people with the same qualifications as you who are competing for a handful of available jobs and it’s easy to see just how much the job market in these professions looks like a bubble that is about to burst. [Actually, law school is three years.]

Advanced degree folks will be okay. They’ve been consistently bumping the undergrads among us out of jobs for years now, as the value of the bachelors degree continues to be watered down. But the question I’ve had for a while, after talking to more and more people is “How will colleges sustain their marketing efforts when a generation will be lamenting their student loan debt, rather than their wonderful experiences, knowledge and the great opportunities that school provided them?”

You can laugh, but think about it. This is truly the first generation that’s been saddled with college debt that would have rivaled mortgages a decade ago. People are always quick to say “well, maybe you shouldn’t have gone to x school” or “You spent that much for a degree in basketweaving? That job doesn’t won’t ever get you any money!?

Thank you, for the soothsayers among us who could clearly see the future. Perhaps they ought to be lottery prognosticators and start taking a cut of what people win, since they’re so smart and have so much foresight.

But that still leaves colleges needing to 1) raise money and 2) recruit newbies to the great ponzi scheme that is college. (I’m joking)

We can say things like “without a degree, you’ll likely have even fewer career prospects,” but that’s not exactly a heartwarming message of “togetherness and belonging.”

Great schools will always be able to recruit, just on their brand prestige. But for small colleges that exist in rural enclaves and whose students largely rely on federal aid and loans that mortgage future are going to have a very difficult time, when the kids of this generation begin to head to college — if not sooner.

What’s my solution? Well, I’ve advocated ending the federal student loan program. I know it’ll never happen. But it would be the surest way to check the tuition increases of the past decade. I realize it’s just a fraction of what it costs to educate students, but tuition dependent schools surely resort to military recruit tactics to ensure they can enroll students — ignoring whether they graduate or not.

More trustees need to take a far more corporate look at their educational missions and assess whether more of them shouldn’t merge with other schools. While I realize this isn’t a pleasant thought, we exist in an era where many are decrying the massive bailouts of financial institutions and car companies. Schools don’t get the same sort of sympathy, as many private colleges close and lose accreditation all of the time.

It would be hard to argue that it’s an efficient use of resources to have thousands of colleges and universities, many of which would be closed tomorrow if it weren’t for federal loan programs. Schools should not be in the business of encouraging debt for their product, much less facilitating the windfalls that go to lenders who certainly aren’t “in it for the common good.”

I’m certainly not blaming schools for student debt. There are a ton of ways to save money on your education if you’re being smart, live frugally and respond to the challenges of the shifting economy.

No one in their right mind would consider lending someone right out of high school a loan to buy a house or a car;  but these same folks are perfectly fine with financing gobs of money for them to pursue a piece of paper that most won’t have a foggy clue what to do with once they get it. It might not be a problem that colleges believe they’re responsible for, but they’re going to find out soon that it’s one they’re going to have to address in the rapidly approach future.

  1. That’s a great point, Devin. I really appreciate your honesty. I think the real gulf is going to end up being between those who rabble rouse and say “Well, it’s not my fault xyz students ran up debt” and those who face the realities of how things have changed. The schools aren’t going to be honest about the changes, except those with endowments big enough to ensure none of their students graduate with any debt.

    I think the catch-22 you mention here is the whole experience thing. On one of the message boards I frequent full of hackers and startup CEOs, folks are always talking about how if you’ve spent years working as a programmer, they’ve found that a degree doesn’t matter. I don’t buy it for anyone graduating today, but a lot of these folks beat that drum repeatedly.

  2. This is becoming more and more of a problem. I feel like the game has changed significantly even since I graduated in ’06.

    If you borrow to buy a car or a home you have something tangible that you can turn around and try to sell to pay off what you borrowed. Student loans are a completely different ball game. You come out with a Bachelors, and no real experience. When the economy is good this is less of a problem because jobs are being created, but when it is bad and people are being laid off, you have to compete against people who, in many cases, have the same degree as you and also years of experience under their belt. And still tuition continues to rise, and students continue to borrow hoping things turn around before they graduate.

    I feel like when I was in school, I didn’t feel like I was gambling with my future the way many students are probably feeling now.

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