Tag Archives: community college

Pulling Back The Curtain


In August President Obama called for a college rating system. College costs and student loan defaults have risen dramatically while the job market has increased its demand for baccalaureate degrees. More people attend college now than ever before. Means of obtaining a baccalaureate degree have expanded and diversified. Yet the entire enterprise has remained quite opaque. Calling for meaningful metrics to ascertain value is a very good thing. But before you can apply measurement you must know what it is you’re measuring. Is the value of a 4-year degree in the recipient’s lifetime earnings? Is the value of a specific degree the speed in which one can earn what was spent/borrowed? Is the knowledge accumulated in four years measurable (and how do we allow for varying disciplines and institutions?) Certain things are quite measurable, such as attrition and graduation rate. But there is nothing about a dropout rate that indicates a subpar education, it does however suggest an issue with the admissions process and students services. Should a college rating system take into account more than education? The argument could be made that vigorous student services have as much to do with higher education than job placement.

We may think that college is nothing more than job training for the majority of participants; we’d be wrong. There are still many people who major in the liberal arts. There are English, Mathematics, History, Religion and Biology majors graduating every year with no plans of attending graduate school. These (presumably) well-educated people will (hopefully) enter the workforce with or without debt. How do we rate how well their college served them? An undergraduate degree in Mathematics most likely will not produce the same income as the equivalent degree in Engineering. And what of the Fine Arts majors? Will we measure the income or job placement of an artist? Do we take into consideration why the budding artist chose to attend college (versus a conservatory or institute)? Clearly there are far too many variables at work to come up with a meaningful rating system. What if instead of a rating we demanded transparency? What if we eliminated all tricks of admissions (e.g., early admission, early decision, early action)? What if we made it crystal clear exactly how it all worked? What if front and center on every piece of admissions propaganda was the exact price of everything? Listed alongside was the true percentage of how many students pay the list price. By eliminating the new car lot/airline travel smoke and mirrors from the get go, people have a better sense of what they’re getting for their money. The next step would be all financial aid officers to be legally obligated to inform students of all options. For example, an officer would have to inform a student that he/she could (a) attend a community college, transfer in and save almost 50%; (b) complete his/her degree in 3 years and save 25% (c) apply for grants, research assistantships, and awards. Most undergraduate colleges/universities ask students to officially declare their major. Before a final declaration is made a student should be provided with timely and accurate information about areas of study and what can typically be expected from those majors. A student should be aware of all the different paths to a career as well as all the different careers that can result from one path. They need to hear from faculty and alumni about their own academic and career choices. Each department would be held to a standard of transparency and informed consent when approving a student’s choice of major.

Beyond transparency lie two less manageable realities; in the end people will pay more than they should for things they cannot afford and the workplace will continue to demand college graduates until they provide a meaningful alternative. This is the darker side of the issue. It’s far easier to point our fingers at the costly culprit that is college, than to admit that our K-12 system has eroded. There was a time in which a high school diploma was a ticket into meaningful (white-collar) employment. Today more than one-third of college students need remedial courses. There’s no reason to assume that college has maintained any semblance of rigor, so one can only imagine what the real state of education actually is. Bringing a high school diploma back to what it was is a complicated and daunting prospect. It would appear to be much easier to just consider a baccalaureate to be the new high school diploma. The ethics of pawning off a public obligation to a (mostly) private enterprise is questionable. We can (slightly) mitigate that failing by making the entire process as transparent as possible.

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Posted by on October 28, 2013 in Education


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Parent’s Student Debt

During the past few years parents have been borrowing money for their children’s education with increasing frequency. Consumer loans, credit card loans (and the scariest of all) home equity loans are taken to provide higher education to children. Presumably much of this debt is incurred due to a sense of obligation to one’s children. In theory it’s hard to fault such sentiment but in actuality it’s terribly flawed.

  • Higher Education is not a birthright
  • Incurring debt for someone else’s asset is risky
  • Parents (by definition) are older than their children & have less time to rebuild assets

It can be a dreadful feeling to discover you cannot give your child everything you wish for them. It is the rare parent who has not had his Bob Cratchit moment at one time or another. If we were to redefine what we wish for our children we might be able to assuage those Cratchit moments. Do we really wish for our children to attend a four-year private college, and study whatever they choose without cost consciousness? If so, why? Why would we think that shielding a young adult from making realistic decisions about economics and their future is ‘giving them everything?’ Isn’t giving them a realistic understanding of dollars and sense and the world at large, a gift that will last a lifetime? College isn’t (or shouldn’t be) summer camp. It’s not a protected and posh enclave where our adult children should experience life. If it ever wasn’t it simply isn’t anymore. College is a commodity and should be treated as such. Higher education is not one size fits all. We spend a lot of energy trying to match a student’s interests and personality with an institution. Affordability is the starting point for the selection process. If a four-year private college is not affordable, the value to a student of a community college+public college is far higher than a private college.

Public college still costs money and the person to incur that debt (if there must be debt) is the student. If the parent can help the student repay the loan, wonderful. Besides the obvious very real economic risks to a parent in incurring debt on behalf of a child, there is risk to the child as well. Being shielded from the realities of financial life does not help anyone make practical decisions. Being aware of the burden a parent has taken on also affects decisions. Attending college without contributing in a significant manner (i.e., summer jobs, scholarships, loans, work-study, etc.) is no longer the norm, and hasn’t been for quite some time. College is not finishing school and it’s not a series of laurel wreath opportunities. It’s a means to an end and a significant number of students don’t achieve that end. (Imagine losing one’s house or retirement without even a child’s bachelor’s degree to show for it!) Nothing helps a person (especially a young person) take something more seriously when it’s his or her own money at stake.

College has become crucial for future workers; as such we need to rid ourselves of our romanticism about the experience. Getting ready for the big great world is a process. It shouldn’t start after tossing one’s cap in the air. Putting one’s home or future security in jeopardy to delay that process is simply unwise.


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Posted by on November 12, 2012 in Education


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Educated Consumers

The White House announced a new program (last year) to ease student debt.  The plan (to start in 2012) would allow graduates to pay 10% of their discretionary income for 20 years.  Any remaining student debt would be “forgiven.”

The amount and proliferation of student debt has grown to ridiculous proportion.  But why in the world should we address this after the fact?  Why are students incurring debt that might have to be forgiven in 20 years?  Either they accrued too much debt, or they accrued too much debt for their chosen profession.  I suggest educating the consumer is a much more effective solution than debt forgiveness.  Like the mortgage crisis, many are buying a product incompatible with their means and needs.

Imagine how easy it is to get caught up in the college selection frenzy at 16 or 17.  It is often also difficult for adolescents to consider shades of gray in decision making.  There will always be more than one way for them to accomplish their educational goals.  If I may, I’d like to offer a little food for thought:

  • Transfer, transfer, transfer.  Two years in a community college (particularly one with a reciprocal agreement with a prestigious university in the area) will save almost 50% in costs.  The degree from the 4 year school (attended for the last 2 years of study) will be exactly the same as the one given to 4 year students.
  • Stick to your own kind.  Do not attend state schools in other states.  State colleges and universities can be wonderful.  They can also be as expensive as a private school for out of state residents.
  • Live at home.  I’m not interested in hearing about the missed social experiences of dormitory life.  That’s not the goal of education.  If money is an issue, would you rather the person living in their childhood room, a college student or a 30 year old trying to pay off a student loan?
  • Consider your major.  I know it’s hard to think ahead as a teenager.  But teens can be savvy consumers.  What kind of degree is worth the associated cost?  A B.F.A. for a total of $40K might be a better choice (for some) than a B.F.A. for $200K.  Better yet, a B.A. for $40K with an Arts major, may be the best investment.
  • Know what you’re buying.  Does the college/university have a robust alumni network or career services?  How is their reputation in your chosen major?  What leadership or research opportunities are available at the school?

Forgiving debt is not sustainable and does nothing to ensure that people are getting the best education they can afford.  The skyrocketing cost of higher education aside, student debt exists in the same realm as consumer or housing debt.  I’m not suggesting a cash only society, but debt should always be incurred thoughtfully and judiciously.  During a time of economic uncertainty and high unemployment, when the next generation is not guaranteed a better standard of living than the one before them, attention must be paid.

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Posted by on October 26, 2011 in Education


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