Students take Debt 101 and lose out

College attendance hides a scandal

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Putting a college education within reach for working families doesn't seem to be a priority" for either Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan, President Barack Obama said while campaigning at colleges Tuesday. He derided Mr. Romney for advising young people to be cautious about going into debt and attacked Mr. Ryan for proposing reductions in federal grants and loans to students.

Mr. Obama has been a friend to those who run our colleges and universities, but not to students who pay Cadillac prices for the educational equivalent of a Yugo.

Real wages for recent college graduates have fallen nearly 5 percent from 2007 to 2011. More than 40 percent of recent college graduates work in jobs that do not require a college education. There are 323,000 waiters and waitresses, 115,000 janitors and 83,000 bartenders with college degrees.

The unemployment rate for Americans aged 18-29 is 50 percent higher than the national average. It's higher among college grads than among young people generally. A majority (53.6 percent) of college graduates under 25 are unemployed or underemployed, the AP reported in April.

College tuition and fees rose 827 percent between 1980 and 2010, more than four times as much as the Consumer Price Index (179 percent). It takes twice as much of the median family income to pay for a year of college now as it did then.

About 70 percent of high school graduates start college, up from 52 percent in 1970, chiefly because of the federal student loan program. But it also has fueled the enormous surge in costs.

Student loan debt, at about $870 billion, now exceeds credit card and auto loan debt. There are as many student loan debtors as adults with bachelor's degrees.

College officials hail the student loan program as a success. For them, it has been. It's paid for big boosts in the size and remuneration of faculty and staff. And by enlarging and enriching a special interest group which gives them votes and money, Democratic politicians also have gained.

But for many students, federal student loans have been more curse than blessing. Only 60 percent who start college get a degree. More acquire debt. To encourage young people to matriculate who lack the ability or inclination to do college work does them no favors.

Those with STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) have little difficulty finding well-paid work, but only about 15 percent of grads have them. More major in the visual and performing arts than in engineering.

About 40 percent of college freshmen require remedial work. College courses have been dumbed down. This is only partly because so many students come poorly prepared. Faculty has more than doubled since 1970. So vast an expansion in so short a time diminishes the quality of instruction.

When marginal students and marginal teachers mix, majors proliferate. There are now 11 in "ethnic, cultural minority, gender and group studies," according to the National Center for Education Statistics. To teach archeology or chemistry, you've got to know archeology or chemistry. To teach the grievance studies, essentially all you have to do is complain.

Another consequence is grade inflation. Poor teachers hand out high marks to disguise how little students are learning. Many don't learn much. Profs Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa examined the records of 3,000 students at 29 colleges and universities. After two years, 45 percent, and after four years, 36 percent "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning."

A student who borrows $97,000 to obtain an "interdisciplinary degree in religious and women's studies" is chiefly responsible for her plight. But those who offer such a degree are running a con, not a school. Even smart kids do stupid things, because they're kids. Adults who mislead and exploit them have much to answer for.

We spend more per pupil than any other country. But our children leave high school and even college with ignorance so massive it endangers their futures, our economy and the viability of our democratic institutions.

The deceitful, self-serving pieties of those who've run our schools into the ground make their greed and corruption more repugnant.

"We're doing it for the children," they say as they line their own pockets. No. They're doing it TO the children.


Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (, 412-263-1476).


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