The specter of how to put two kids through college looms large in my life; I pick at it as one would a scab – and with similar results.
Recently, a mother of three told me her daughter, an Emmaus High School grad who went on to a four-year school, has $60,000 in college loans – and she emerged with the least amount of debt among her friends.
Strangely, that kind of burden on the middle class doesn’t bother syndicated columnist Cal Thomas. In an op-ed piece in The Morning Call last week he wrote this:
“I feel about those with crushing tuition debt the way I feel about people who choose to live along the frequently flooded banks of the Mississippi River. If students and their parents choose expensive schools, they should accept the responsibility and cost of that decision.”
The difference, Mr. Thomas, between a house on a river and the education of this country’s youth is the house is never going to cure cancer, invent the next big thing, write the Great American novel or negotiate peace. Homes on riverbanks are not necessary for society to thrive.
Besides, Thomas makes it sound as if young people could graduate debt free if they would just steer clear of elite private colleges. But even state universities like Penn State are out of reach for many middle class families. Penn State’s tuition and room and board at the main campus is more than $25,000 a year and that’s before you include books and other expenses.
Private colleges, including several in the Lehigh Valley, typically give more aid than state schools but they also start with price tags of $40,000 to $55,000, when you include room and board.
Community colleges and trade schools are fine alternatives but the answer to staggering college costs can’t be that only the rich go to four-year schools.
These days pundits and politicians are quick to say they don’t want to burden the next generation with more national debt but most don’t seem to appreciate that we are burdening them in other ways.
In his fascinating article “The War Against Youth” in the May 8 Esquire magazine, Stephen Marche argues that the college loan issue is part of a bigger trend in this country. We are shifting resources to Baby Boomers while we “eat our young.”
After talking about huge college debts, Marche writes:
“Once you're out of college, you'll have to intern. Again, no choice. The practice of not paying young people for their labor has become so ingrained in the everyday practice of American business that we've forgotten how bizarre and recent the development is. In the early 1980s, 3 percent of college grads had had an internship. By 2006, 84 percent had done at least one.”
What if our kids instead go to law school or med school?
“In 1981, average medical-school debt was less than $20,000. Today it is $158,000,” he writes. “Law-school tuition rose 317 percent between 1989 and 2009.”
It’s not just that young people won’t be able to consider buying a house until they are 40. It’s that every kid who graduates with that kind of debt has to get a job that will make him lots of money as fast as humanly possible. Forget about taking a job with a low-paying charity or living on boxes of mac and cheese for a year so you can try to start your own business or invent a new product.
We’ll have a whole generation living with crushing debt, which means there can be no margin for error – or risk.