I sent out a tweet yesterday announcing that I have no sympathy for college graduates with student loan debt. The tweet was probably a bit harsh, which isn't like me at all. Loyal readers will attest that I usually display a soft and generous heart in everything I write (please play along).
What I should have said is that I have no sympathy for people who constantly whine about their student debt and play the victim. I especially have no sympathy for those who demand that the government "forgive" their debt. As for those who bear the debt burden responsibly and with quiet dignity, I have plenty of sympathy and respect. I can also relate. I've been making student loan payments for seven years and I didn't even go to college. My wife has the debt. It's not fun. It's a hardship. But I don't expect anyone to cry tears for me.
I completely concur with everyone who argues that college is too expensive. It is absurd that universities require students to mortgage the next 15 years of their life just for the opportunity to attend classes. It is immoral to loan tens of thousands of dollars to a person with no job, no assets, no wealth, a net worth of zero, and no immediate prospects of income. What's worse, many of these kids are purchasing this massively expensive product without any clear idea as to how they might use it. It's like selling a Cessna to a broke 17-year-old who has no pilot's license and isn't even sure he wants to get one. The whole system is ludicrous and unethical in too many ways to count.
But what frustrates me about this conversation is not just the victim mentality of the college grads who did, after all, sign on that dotted line and agree to the terms of the loan, but even more so the way this conversation always avoids the clear solution. Most people are resolutely unwilling to consider or take seriously the one single thing that could address and finally solve the student debt crisis. Everyone wants to talk about policies and regulations and laws and debt forgiveness plans and so forth. None of these strategies will actually make college less expensive. They're far more likely to have the opposite effect.
The real answer to the problem is obvious: fewer people should go to college. Much fewer, in fact. Universities have no incentive to drive down their costs because they know that kids will continue to be funneled through their doors regardless. If you owned a denim company with a wide base of customers who have demonstrated a willingness to buy your jeans at literally any cost whatever, would you lower your prices or raise them? If you're a generous person or a terrible businessman or both, you might cut your costs just to do your customers a favor. But if you're focused on the bottom-line, your $90 jeans will be $300 in no time. You will start lowering the prices as soon as your customers come to their senses and start looking for cheaper options. If they never do, you will be happy to let them mortgage their homes to buy a pair of pants. Universities, it is clear, are focused on the bottom-line and thus behave like the businessman in the latter scenario.
College will become less expensive the moment that a preponderance of potential students (and their parents) start showing a little discernment and prudence. I'm not saying that everyone should avoid college until the prices come down. Certainly if you know that you will need a four-year degree for the occupation you wish to enter, then the cost, even as high as it is, might be worth it. But if you know that a degree is not necessary to achieve your professional goals, then obviously it would be a calamitous mistake to drive yourself into years of debt to obtain a piece of paper you probably won't need. And here's the most important category, because it includes, I think, most 17 and 18-year-olds: if you have no idea what you want to do with your life, then you should forgo college or put if off until you have a better idea. The days of signing up for $80,000 of debt and going to college in the hope that you'll figure it out while you're there must be over. In no other situation would we ever recommend that a person buy a thing for tens of thousands of dollars and then decide if they need it. It would be foolish in the case of a plane or a car or a storefront on main street, and it's just as foolish with a college degree.
Of course, this means that the "college experience" can no longer be considered a good reason to attend college. The experience is overrated, anyway. You don't need to take out a loan just for the opportunity to get drunk on the weekends. Also, education is not a good enough reason to attend college. It should be, but it isn't. College is simply too expensive, and the education it provides often too incomplete and ideologically driven, to justify the debt. If you just want to learn, you can do that with books and documentaries and lectures on YouTube. There is nothing taught in a four year institution that you couldn't learn on your own. That wasn't always the case, but it is today in the Information Age.
Ironically, college is growing more obsolete even as it gets more expensive. That isn't the way things are supposed to work. It didn't cost $300 to buy a VCR once DVD players gained popularity. Generally, when a product has to compete with other products, and the other products have advantages and conveniences that it doesn't have, prices will go down, not up. That's the trajectory we should be seeing with college tuition prices. And we will, once we stop treating college as a necessary prerequisite for all people everywhere.
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