For many years, my grandfather told me: “You just need that degree,” as if going to college was some requirement for adulthood. Having grown up in a coal-mining town in western Pennsylvania, my grandfather regrets that he was never able to afford college, nor would he have even known how to apply.
The situation was the same for both my parents. College seemed unaffordable and unreachable at the time. Plus, without an established family precedent of going to college, they graduated from high school and moved on to looking for jobs. Yet my parents gave the same talk to me as my grandfather: I had to get that college degree.
They believe there is an immediate status change by gaining a college diploma in America. My parents and grandparents have always wanted that change for me, as if graduating college meant everything.
The problem: graduating college is not the groundbreaking, social mobility-inducing phenomenon it used to be. We have reached a point where college is almost forced upon America’s youth. In many high schools, the college process has become a major competition. Jobs that previously did not require college degrees now require them. After all, there are so many college graduates out there, why not hire someone with a degree? The demand for a college education seems like a forever sustainable reality of our society.
On January 15, President Obama convened college presidents from across the nation to discuss making college more accessible to low-income students. As part of the administration’s new focus on outcomes, the college presidents also discussed plans to help the low-income students succeed and graduate.
On Tuesday night, and for the fifth straight State of the Union address, Obama asked Congress to work with his administration to make college more affordable, and student loans even less burdensome.
The trend is toward more college, not less. But is this the right course?
Student debt has ballooned in recent years, with no end in sight. Now, the administration is encouraging Congress to make only 10 percent of income go towards paying back student debt. While this may make college more accessible, it is also committing millions of young adults to pay for their college over their lifetimes, when many would have done equally as well without the college degree.
With the vast supply of colleges we now have, the quality of the institutions varies significantly. The federal government’s new ranking system to be released in 2015 that will peg financial aid to outcomes at particular institutions has the government finally recognizing this problem with college quality. While I am no fan of this ranking system for a variety of reasons, the fact such a system is being instituted should lead us to ask: is the current collegiate system sustainable?
My answer is no. Much like Americans with too much credit card debt, individuals that go to colleges less generous with financial aid than institutions like Swarthmore are taking on enormous amounts of debt that they may never be able to repay. Except that you have to repay your student loan debt, even when completing bankruptcy.
As the federal government continues to reduce how much of the loans actually have to be repaid, I think we are going to start seeing people ask for a complete bailout of their student loans. The government is certainly not in a position to excuse all the loans. Before more loans are taken out, we need to seriously reevaluate our collegiate system in America.
This can only begin once we recognize that not everyone should attend college. There are many jobs and skill sets that do not require a college degree, and many Americans may be just as happy not going to college. A friend of mine recently published a long post on Facebook describing how she was that she decided not to go to college. She now has no major debt, owns a car and is saving money for the future.
Such a position is difficult for me to take. As a first-generation student on financial aid, I have seen the promise college can offer. But we need to be realistic. College is not for everyone, and our attempts to funnel more people into colleges where they may or may not succeed is bad for productivity.
We need to rethink the federal government’s approach to college. We need bold ideas that get the federal government out of continuous higher education encouragement, and stop further delaying student loan payback. Until we see that not everyone should go to college, I am doubtful any true reforms with a real impact on our society can happen.