An article published online in Bloomberg advocating for the end of U.S. government student loans sparked some conversation in my neck of the woods yesterday. Student loans are always a tricky conversation topic, in part because the gap between the ideal and the reality of higher education keeps shifting and widening, and in part because of the fluid concept of education. Regardless of these pitfalls, student loans are an important topic for discussion.
The current system of higher education is unsustainable for both the universities and the students. Universities are receiving less and less funding (public universities from support from the government, private universities from donations and endowments) and as a result, deep cuts are made across the campus, from hiring more poorly supported adjunct instructors instead of more expensive full-time tenured faculty to stopping facility upgrades. Students are facing a world where an undergraduate degree is replacing a high school diploma as the necessary level of educational attainment for even service industry jobs. The path of college to solid white-collar job is no longer visible, and students are paying more money than ever just to stay competitive in an ever-worsening job market.
I do not support any changes that make higher educational less attainable for people, and especially for groups that have traditionally been shut out of institutes of higher learning. By cutting the availability of financial support, students who are already struggling with the costs associated with college (tuition, fees, housing, board, etc.) are going to be prevented from attaining a level of education that is quickly becoming the minimum level necessary for employment.
But I am not so sure that I am comfortable with college becoming a necessary prerequisite for employment the way high school diplomas were. For starters, a free high school education is theoretically available for everyone. Theoretically, since kids who have to work in high school, who cannot afford the textbook fees of some public high schools, who have to attend dangerous campuses with inadequate facilities certainly face a different reality of how “free” high school education is compared to their more affluent peers. There is no similar model for college. College, even community college, can be prohibitively expensive. By requiring a college education for employment, certain socioeconomic groups will be forever at a disadvantage. By denying access to higher education to those socioeconomic groups, the current messed up status quo will be maintained.
This is a huge problem, and to be honest, I’m not sure how to best address this. Right now, I tend to lean more towards a mixed model, where college is made more affordable, preferably through grants not loans, for low and middle income students, while at the same time providing more employment opportunities for students with vocational training. College should be available for everyone, but it should not be required for everyone: different people are interested and skilled in different things, so there must be alternative routes to employment, and these alternative routes must be respected.
What do you think?