Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Dear Parents, Please Save Your Freaking Children From Massive Debt

Here's a great NYT piece on the near-criminal enterprise that is today's Law School. They're puppy mills and, like almost all puppy mills, they don't care about the dogs. Law schools don't exist to train people to become lawyers; they exist to suck up all kinds of money for the school, and that's why they've rapidly expanded, even though the profession hasn't (quite the opposite, in fact).

The sad thing is you could easily apply this to most of academia, given the extent of degrees that aren't worth the paper they're printed on. We tell children, in what should be pure mythology, that college is the answer to everything. We've even convinced ourselves that it is as a society. I certainly bought it when I went off to school.

Meanwhile, there's untold millions of people graduating college today who have job prospects that are little better than if they hadn't gone to school at all, particularly for graduate programs and certain BAs. I can't count the number of friends who have graduated from college and can't find a meaningful job that makes use of their skills -- and these are all perfectly smart people, most finishing in the top 10-20% of their class. Some have been forced to take jobs that they certainly could've had right out of high school; others were forced to take jobs where they're lucky to be able to afford the rent. Finally, some have been forced to consider what should be the unthinkable: Grad school.

For the latter, they'd say at least they'd be doing something fun with their time -- less hopeful that the grad degree would provide them an edge for a job as they are hopeful a two year pause would provide enough time for the market to sort itself out. Yes, I've actually heard that argument -- from sane and rational people who are very desperate and know it's easier today to get into a decent grad program than it is to get a decent job. Of course, they'd be sorely mistaken, particularly given the millions of others who share the same thoughts -- and would be competing for the same jobs. The only group of people making out here is academia -- and the sad thing is, deep down inside, they probably know it.

But college graduates looking into grad school at least have some foresight and understanding of what all that debt will do. Teenagers graduating high school don't -- and they should be pitied most of all. We just throw students out there, with little time for them to understand what they even want to do or what their options will truly cost -- and without that kind of a plan ahead of time, four years can go by and a student can realize they just wasted all that time and money. Case in point: My college friend who learned he really wanted to study English after nearly getting enough credits for a degree in Biochemistry. Every teen thinks they know what they're doing and it's so hard to argue to them that they don't, but given the enormity of a possible mistake in this day and age, no responsible adult should let them before they have some idea of what the consequences would be -- and what those consequences would mean.

In Massachusetts, we're worse off than most states, because we suffer from HarvaBuMit-tus, where students are caught with the bug that makes them think it's somehow unseemly to go to public college, as if public schools were tainted or something. In a day and age when UMASS is ranked in the top 100 schools across the Globe, you'd think we could make some headway on this -- but alas. This, of course, goes doubly for community colleges -- which induced laughter amongst many of the snobbier types at my high school back in the day.

Those ignorant enough to choose private schools without the means to pay for their debt (aka those without wealthy parents) should be pitied, because they really have no idea and they won't want to be dissuaded -- until it's too late. Private schools will cost twice as much or more in almost all cases, but they certainly won't make you twice as likely to get a job or even get into grad school. No where close. Your experience and, most importantly of all, contacts, are far more likely to help in that department -- and your GPA and field-appropriate grad-school test scores are the tickets into that town, should you be foolish enough to choose it.

Thinking back on how stupid we all were at 17 and 18, picking where we'd go to school, I'm utterly shocked our society lets us do it as easily as we do. The NYT makes a great case that law school admissions, or at least rankings, need a great deal of reform -- but the truth of the matter is our entire system does. Far from empowering students to do what they want, our system of endless and easy college loans in this country is a system of neo-indentured service -- and the only people it empowers is colleges and universities to grossly inflate the cost of a college education. For students, those who graduate or not, they get giant loan payments that force them to sacrifice what they want to do for what they have to do -- killing entrepreneurship, creativity and even happiness.

As a simple matter of protecting students who don't understand what the real world is like and making sure we get as much bang for our buck in terms of government investments, any student who takes a government loan to go to college should first have to go to a two years at a community school before going onto a bachelor's program. Would it really hurt anyone doing that? For students, they'd still get all the same opportunities, as well as

  1. Two more years to learn what they really want to do, so they can avoid disastrous mistakes (like my friend who spent 2+ years studying Biology before he realized his passion was English),
  2. A greater likelihood of obtaining at least some kind of degree, rank or training in a specialized field requiring a two-year course,
  3. Get the first two years of their education at a greatly reduced cost, saving millions from a crushing debt some may never truly be able to afford. 
The government would also get the tangential benefit of being able to greatly increase the number of students able to receive loans and grants, which would empower far more Americans. Why haven't we done this yet?

When I was looking at schools at 17 or 18, I'm glad I had the sense (at the last minute) to avoid all the private schools I desperately wanted to go to -- but had someone told me what even UMASS would cost, I'd have run to North Shore Community College for two years first. Back then, I seriously thought my loans would be pocket change -- something like $50 or $100 a month -- instead I have a $500 monthly albatross, binding me to my childhood home.

Update: Great blog on a WSJ story about how wages are declining across the country and probably won't rise for a very long time; the blog ties it into the greater (failed) strategy of the past 20 years that very much relates to what I wrote above.


Anonymous said...

Salem State University is a tremendous value and you can take up to 18 credits a semester for the tuition...if you are a smart cookie and buckle down to it, that means you could have a bachelor's degree in hand in three years (thus saving a years tuition!)...Salem State has excellent programs in Nursing, Business, Computer Science, Criminal Justice, History/Geography, Social Work, Theater Arts, Education and any number of Liberal Arts. The key to not ending up saddled with debt is to go to a public university undergrad, and once you really know what career/subject you want to pursue, go private for the Masters (better still, get a job that helps subsidize Master's courses!)...

Ryan said...

I don't disagree with that at all. Salem State's great -- as are *many* of our state schools. When I picked schools, the major reason why I didn't consider Salem State was because I didn't want to commute -- I wanted the 'college experience' of living in a dorm. I don't begrudge thinking that then, but now if I did it all over again, I would have been more practical.

The only thing I disagree with is on even getting a master's. I'd only recommend getting a master's under a certain set of circumstances: (1) you've worked in the professional world for a few years and know that what you want to do requires a Master's (ie teaching) or (2) money and/or finding work is not a problem (ie your work will pay for it or you're from a wealthy background). Under scenario (1), I'd certainly recommend anyone keep their jobs while they work if possible.

David Moisan said...

I'm an SSU survivor (Comp Sci., '1987) who paid for school with a Pell grant. Yes I know, I have two heads.

I could not live down the snobbery for a long time and regretted not going private for just as long.

But I was the first in my family to attend and finish. I did look at graduate study but declined for similar reasons as Ryan: Couldn't pay for it. Also, it was obvious that as much as I loved computer science (and still do), my ability for masters-level work did not match my affection.

I loved IT then and am still in the field so we can consider this a success.

Gladys Kravitz said...

Ryan, I have a daughter checking out colleges now - she's 15. Since reading your blog post I've been wondering what the chances are that she could go local for a couple years, then transfer to a private school. Is it difficult to transfer at the halfway point?

As far as snobbery - I fully understand. Though I could have attended a local college back in the early 80's, I couldn't bear the stigma, and went to a private college instead - only to have to drop out in 3rd year thanks to a lack of funds, despite also working full time! I filled my free time thereafter by attending various institutes of of hard knocks - until I managed to find a job that helped pay for education - finishing my degree at the same college I was too mortified to attend after high school.

I got a better education there, was instructed by more professional teachers, and paid far less than the private college I attended right out of college.

Oddly enough, turning my nose up at a public, cheaper college out of sheer snobbery had the end result of doing a real number on my self-confidence.

Great post, thanks.

Ryan said...

In terms of acceptance, it's much easier to transfer into a school than it is to get into one right out of high school.

In terms of transferring credits, that's a little more complicated. My general advice is it's not so bad transferring in the first two years and taking most of your credits with you. Most schools also cap the number of credits you can take with you (generally, you need to complete at least half the credits where you graduate in order to graduate).

That's a little more fuzzy with the state's public schools. They'll almost always accept the credits when transferring from one to the other, and you can't lose any credits when transferring from one UMASS to the other. So, she'd still have plenty of opportunities to go local to save $$ and really figure out what she wants to do, then transfer out to whichever public college she wants and works out best for what she wants to do later one -- be that Amherst or Dartmouth (which has the state's best nursing, art and engineering programs) or Bridgewater (best teaching programs), etc.

The 'snobbery' factor seemed so much more important to me at 18, when I didn't know what money really was, than it did to me when I had to start paying my loans. Even going to public university, the 'doubling' of my tuition and fees for room and board is the main source of my debt today. If I had gone to Salem State instead, I may not have had to take any loans at all after grants and scholarships were taken into consideration.

Ryan said...

I actually did the math right now -- room and board is about 75% of my loans today, and if I were smarter at 18, or had someone sit down with me and understand how much money that really was, I wouldn't have had to pay a lick of it. My loans today would be trivial. /sigh

Gladys Kravitz said...

Thanks Ryan, I really appreciate your input and perspective. This is a big decision for our family.

As difficult as student loans seemed back in the day, they are monumental yokes around the necks of young people just starting out today. I don't want my kids saddled with debt. My daughter could easily spare the $$ room and board by going local, and, like you said, see if she really wants to major in her major after all. I didn't, and neither did her dad. I agree, I wish I had someone sit down with me, too way back and when and explain things.

My state college only took about half my private school credits, but it turned out I didn't mind so much. Having transferred from an engineering school which looked down on liberal arts, I actually discovered that I loved my liberal arts courses, and grew much more personally and professionally.

I wish you didn't have so much educational debt. I'm sure it's not easy, but, as bad as it seems now, someday (insert aged sigh of experience here) you'll actually find a way of making it all seem worthwhile.

We have to...

James said...

Hey Ryan. I'm late to respond, but I was away.

I want to add an angle to your argument because I have seen this sentiment harm people from my home community.

In short, top-tier school =/= most expensive.

For most kids from working class and lower income families, for most 1st gen college kids, the best (highest ranked) school is often the best financial deal as well. For at least the last decade, most elite colleges and universities have been committed to meeting 100% of financial need for students. Families may have to hustle a bit to make the gap between reality and the school's vision, but the packages are still usually quite generous and make an elite school cheaper than a state school.

But, as long as we believe that elite = expensive, then 1st generation college students will temper their ambitions and not even try for the top schools. I have seen it again and again.

I don't really disagree with your points here, but they are only part of the story.

Ryan said...

James, I actually agree with you. If you get into Harvard or Yale or Dartmouth and you come from a middle class background, or poorer, chances are very high you will get a good financial package from them that makes it affordable, and therefore my advice would not apply to you.

If you can afford the $50 or whatever it is to send in an application, and you think you have a shot, by all means -- go for it.

Many of the most elite colleges out there have recognized that it is becoming rather tricky for them to keep massive endowments, but not make college affordable for middle class families. Fewer of them are doing it.

That said, many of the still-expensive-but-not-elite schools haven't. I'm slightly horrified by middle class families who send their kids to the likes of Northeastern and BU, without the means to afford it. It's not worth it, unless they fork over the $$, which is unlikely.

Obviously, every situation is different. A metric that could be used is "how much more expensive will this education be in relation to what a public education would cost?" If the answer is "a lot more," it's probably not worth it for families that can't afford to pay for that education outright (the vast majority of us). Of course, you can't get the full answer to that question until you apply and get in -- I don't think there's any harm in applying to a wide option of schools.

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