As parents, we are always viewing the lives of our children as a succession of stepping stones or building blocks. We’ve been told that we should play our kids music when they are babies so that they get a head start on mental development. We’re told that we need to enroll them in the best pre-schools, to give them a head start on education. We’re told that we need to push them harder throughout elementary school so that they can get into academically “talented and gifted” programs. We’re told that we need to make sure our kids are taking accelerated courses and SAT and ACT prep courses in high school so that they can get good grades, score high on standardized tests, and get into the “right college.” We’re even told that our kids need to fill their schedules with extracurricular activities, volunteer hours, special clubs, and societies, and more—not because our kids are passionate about those things, but because this stuff looks good on college applications.
In theory, this long series of stepping stones—and the general wisdom that recommends them—are supposed to lead our children to higher-paying, more fulfilling, and all around better jobs. We figure that, if all our pushing and nagging can point our kids toward big professional opportunities, everything will have been worth it.
Why College Is Losing Ground
A decade or two ago, this predetermined path to the “right” college might well have been worth it. The job market was in good shape, and employment prospects were solid for recent college grads. There was a feeling that a college degree was all someone needed to unlock the possibilities of the world and build a successful life.
However, today, the story has changed. While the job market has made leaps and bounds of recovery since the start of the so-called “Great Recession” in 2008, it still has a long way to go to get back to a stable, healthy place. In urban areas, the labor market today tends to be vibrant; in the countryside, prospects are much bleaker. This trend means that the vast majority of recent college graduates will head to the urban centers in search of employment. However, while the job markets in those areas are in good shape, there are still more people looking for jobs than there are jobs to be had. This fact, coupled with the expense of living in cities compared to the cost of life in rural areas, means that many recent grads are still struggling to find jobs that can cover their living costs. The uneven spread of the labor market has created too much competition in the cities and too much stagnation in the rural areas, and these are trends that a college degree can’t magically help a young professional overcome.
To make matters worse, college degrees have become markedly more expensive to attain. With the booming economy of the mid-1990s, there is little doubt that a college degree in 1995 carried more value and more assurance of employment in 1995 than it does today. However, according to U.S. News and World Report, the costs of college have increased dramatically in that time frame. Between 1995 and 2015, the average cost of tuition and fees increased 179 percent at private universities, 226 percent for out-of-state students at public universities, and 296% for in-state students at public universities.
Because of these price increases and because of the decrease in the level of value that a college degree carries, higher education is losing ground. Or, at least, it should be. Among many parental groups, though, it has been tough to shake the feeling that putting our kids on the path toward the “right” college isn’t just the best option, but also the only one.
Considering the College Investment
Based on the statistics provided by U.S. News and World Report, the college path did seem like an easy decision back in the mid-1990s. Think about it this way: in 1995, you could pay for a year of college tuition for just under $2,500. You would be able to cover your entire college education for somewhere in the ballpark of $10,000 (not including books, room, board, and other personal expenses). With a number that low—and it really does seem low in retrospect—it was still feasible for students to make enough money over the summer to cover most if not all their college tuition costs.
Of course, many students did still count on loans to help them pay their college bills back in the mid-90s. According to a 2002 report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), 59% of college students had federal student loans to their name during the 1995-96 school year. 59% certainly isn’t a low percentage. Most studies estimate that around 70% of the pupils graduating from college today carry student loan debt. A 59% to 70% increase is hardly a massive leap: based on PIRG’s data, the percentage of students borrowing in the form of federal student loans jumped from 42% in 1992-93 to 59% in 1995-96. That’s a 17% leap in three years, which makes the 11% increase we’ve seen in the past two decades seem downright tame.
What’s more alarming, though, is the amount of debt that students are carrying when they finish college. PIRG data says that the average 1995 student was carrying $13,327 in cumulative debt. According to Student Loan Hero, the average graduate of the Class of 2016 had $37,172 in student debt. For those keeping track, those numbers chart a 278% increase in just 20 years.
It’s easy for all the numbers to start looking a little bit blurry after you’ve been looking at them for long enough. After all, every student’s experience is going to be somewhat different based on the college they attend, any scholarships they receive, whether they can hold down a job throughout college or in the summers between terms, and the amount of financial assistance that parents can provide. However, students in 1995 could take on college loans knowing that 1) their debt would be minimal and 2) they would be able to pay off that debt in a short number of years. Students today don’t have the same luxury. Indeed, for most of our kids, pursuing that old path toward the “right” college means considering an investment that could affect their finances for many years to come.
What College Costs
It’s common knowledge that college expenses today are exorbitant. In 1995, students could pay for a year at an in-state public university with under $2,500—putting the price tag for a four-year degree in the ballpark of $10,000. In 2015, U.S. News and World Report found that the average annual tuition cost for in-state public universities was around $9,800. In other words, what used to buy you a full degree will only get you about a quarter of the way there today. Increases for out-of-state students or private universities are a bit lower, but that’s only because the prices are so much higher. U.S. News figures put average 2015 costs at $38,762 a year for students at private institutions and just over $24,000 for out-of-state students at public universities.
However, these costs—and the five figures of debt that most students have at graduation—are just the tip of the iceberg for what college can cost students in the long run. Many college students today are making important life decisions based on the sharp expense of college and the pummeling debt that it causes. According to a survey conducted by Student Loan Hero, 25% of recent college grads have had to wait longer to move out of their parents’ homes and start living independently, thanks to student loan debt. 44% have deferred their dreams of world travel. More than 40% have waited longer than they otherwise would have to purchase homes. 20% have delayed starting their own businesses. And 14% have put off marriage.
These statistics paint a bleak picture for the futures of our kids. All the events and moments listed above are significant life milestones. Moving out on our own; traveling the world; getting married; starting a family; buying a home; launching a business: these are major life milestones. They are the events that we look back on in old age and remember fondly and proudly. They are the moments that define our lives. College is supposed to be a stepping stone to the success and stability that allows all these other things to happen. College itself is supposed to be a building block for a better, brighter future.
By putting our kids on a life path where going to the “right” college is the only viable option, are we robbing them of the moments of beauty that make life worth living? Are we sabotaging them on their journey toward independence, adventure, marriage, and family? Again, the answer isn’t simple or straightforward. Plenty of young graduates still find success after college and follow the paths we always wanted for them. It’s worth noting that none of the percentages cited above top 50%, which means that many college graduates aren’t delaying key life decisions and milestones because of debt.
But some are. Some graduates get out of college only to find that they don’t know what the next stepping stone is supposed to be. Student Loan Hero also reports that one in five college graduates today are unable to work in their field of study. Said in another more damning way, 20% of the degrees that students plunge themselves into debt aren’t even helping our kids find success in the professional world.
More damning still, a survey conducted by Citizen’s Bank found that 59% of millennials don’t have any idea when they will be free and clear from their student loan debt. In other words, a college graduate who delays major life decisions, risks, or leaps of faith until he or she is out of debt could be waiting a lifetime.
Giving Our Children Better Advice
Pardon the cliché, but the fact is that we all only get one life. Our kids, though their futures may seem infinite and full of possibility when they are in elementary school or high school, are no exception to this rule. As such, it’s not fair for us to push our kids toward decisions that may have hugely negative ramifications on their futures. We do not have the right to derail their one chance at a happy life, just because we believe that the path toward the “right” college still holds value.
For some students, college will still be the right path. Those working in fields that are grounded in science, math, and technology can still get the fantastic education and high-value degrees that college is supposed to offer. Those skillsets are specialized enough and in-demand enough that college can still provide a virtual guarantee of employment—and high-paying employment at that.
For other students, though, the path is less sure. Majors in the arts or humanities, while fulfilling from an educational standpoint, don’t usually offer the same job prospects as majors in science, math, or technology. The issue is that these majors typically cost just as much as the majors that offer better return-on-investment. Students who want to pursue these pathways of study must take just as big of a risk with much lower chances of reward.
As a parent, you should never discourage your child from pursuing the dreams or subjects that excite them. Ultimately, our kids are the ones who get to make the choice of whether to go to college and what they want to study. That’s how it should be. However, what parents should be doing is lessening the emphasis on college as the “only” choice. Getting a job straight out of high school is a respectable option. Opting to take courses at a community college rather than enroll at a four-year institution is an acceptable choice. Exploring trade schools (or other alternative educational and skill-building opportunities) is a worthy route to take. By giving our kids these other options, we might help them avoid a situation where they put their lives on hold because they have too much debt.
Ultimately, many of our children will still find their futures by getting good grades, scoring highly on the ACT and SAT, and ending up at the “right” colleges.” Today, though, the investment might not be worth it for everyone, and that’s just fine. There are other pathways to success and happiness in this world.