High school students all across Horry County will walk across a stage next week and receive their hard-earned pass into adulthood. Yet, after the graduation parties end and curious relatives start asking about plans for the future, these students quickly face one of the most important adult decisions of their lives: Do I go to college?
Years ago, such a question would seem rather Spicoli-esque. However, with job searches taking nearly six months for the less than half of all South Carolina recent graduates that are not either unemployed or underemployed, the four-year college track is not what it used to be. This is even more true when considering that the average S.C. graduate now leaves college with more than $27,500 in debt -- debt that is only forgiven or canceled in limited circumstances, and rarely bankruptcy.
Despite the earnest efforts from high school guidance counselors pushing students into four-year colleges, the traditional (and much ballyhooed) post-secondary education path is a gamble that is paying off for students less and less. Sure, the job market still struggles to recover, but the issue how to cope with the prospect of being an unemployed college graduate with a mountain of student load debt goes much deeper than the economy. To change the fate of college graduates, we must take a hard look at how we view education in America long before the first resume is sent.
Since the 1970s, the value of a college degree dramatically increased in our society. As such, students, from the earliest ages, are essentially brainwashed into believing that good grades plus good colleges equals good jobs, big salaries, and a high standard of living. It is true that college graduates have an upper hand in the job market compared to peers with only a high school diploma. However, the value of a college degree is not what it once was years ago. Not only is the job market flooded with four-year degrees, job recruiters are also questioning their value. More and more companies are looking for real talent and experience, rather than just a transcript of the courses taken by a student. Merely holding a Bachelor’s degree is not a free pass into the working world.
This shift in how employers assess college education is particularly relevant to students on the fence about going to a four-year school versus the technical school route. Telling high schools students, however, that a solid education in a trade might be better than a general education at a local college -- just to have a college degree -- goes against the so-called "education ideal" we as a culture have deluded ourselves into believing.
The push for greater access to financial aid only fuels this dilemma, in large part because universities see how much money is to be made from students who care more about having a degree than what marketable value they get from it. The value our culture places in college degrees makes them an inelastic good, meaning the demand for them is only marginally impacted by the price, and the abundance of student loan money fuels this environment: high school students feel pressured to have a four-year degree, and student loans make this dream possible regardless of the rising costs. And, because universities receive their money from students up front, and because student loan debt is not typically discharged in bankruptcy court, it is students -- not colleges or lenders -- who assume all the risk.
Of course, students are ultimately responsible for the decisions they make regarding the investment in their future -- even bad ones -- but the educational system itself shares responsibility in rigging the game.
So, what is the solution? Many in our generation believe student loan debt forgiveness is the first step; however, that only solves the end result of a problem, and does so on the backs of all taxpayers. Not only that, it would lead to a dramatic spike in interest rates for students who should be going to college. Capping tuition at public universities is another red herring for fixing this issue that turns state legislators into college administrators, and limits the ability for state schools to compete with unregulated private schools.
The long-term solution to changing the gloomy fate for tomorrow’s college students is by questioning the education paradigm that created a higher education racket that hands out expensive degrees with little marketable value. And, this requires a change in perspective across the board. Parents and guidance counselors should stop pushing the four-year track for every student. Not all students are destined for a four-year college, and vocational training at technical colleges can provide a happy and successful life for these students while avoiding massive student loan debt. Students should also take more responsibility in considering the earning potential of expensive degrees (especially graduate level degrees) before they graduate to find a limited job market for someone with their educational background.
The sentiments of the Occupy Wall Street crowd certainly were understandable. For years, students were force-fed a reality that no longer exists, and the shocking realization that all that hard work does not necessarily translate into a high-paying job came with a very expensive price tag. However, whining about the sad state of affairs rather than addressing the educational system as a whole holds us back from real progress on the issue.