Tuesday, May 25, 2010

WBUR and the “Education Bubble”

May 25, 2010 - Kudos to the WBUR team for focusing attention on the growing amount of debt that college students are facing upon graduation. I am pleased to be a part of this timely series. And I am particularly pleased to see that the conversation has moved beyond simply blaming one single entity, say the loan providers, but rather focusing the discussion on the shared responsibility between colleges, loan providers, government, and students/consumers. It truly should be a shared responsibility.

Given how valuable a college degree has become, sorting out what is an acceptable amount of college debt can be difficult for families. Add in the dreams of attending the perfect college and an 18-year-old making these decisions and you see the challenges. There is no question that students and families must take responsibility for the decisions they make, and they must learn to be savvy consumers. But, what about the responsibility of colleges? Should they allow students and families to take out “whatever it takes” in loans to attend their institution? Are families allowed to buy a $2 million house if it is clearly beyond their means? And who shares the responsibility of pushing families into that $2M house? Should students be able to take out $80K in debt if they have no realistic chance of repaying that loan? Isn’t the answer that everyone shares some responsibility for this issue?

As a starting point, there is a need for much more transparency at the time students and their families are deciding about college. How about helping families connect the dots between anticipated debt and a student’s anticipated starting salary? Sure, there is a lot of uncertainty - one could change her major or chart a different course - but it’s a good place to begin. Or, how about clearer information about what share of students graduate from a given institution… let alone get jobs once they graduate? What about greater transparency of just how much it will cost? Will tuition go up from year to year? What’s the average duration of time to graduation at a given institution? What if only 50 percent of students actually graduate within six years… is that a good risk for a student to take? Shouldn’t families be able to factor these important facts into their thinking?

If the numbers don’t add up, parents should take heart in knowing that less expensive options exist. As students have more information based on real data, they can make informed choices and, hopefully, not put their futures in jeopardy by attending a college that they cannot afford, or one where the odds of completion are bleak. And, then everyone wins.

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