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College education today: Worth the massive debt load in 2019?

Written By | Apr 20, 2019
college education, debt load

College Education 2019. Is it worth the massive debt load? (Image via, public domain, CC 0.0 license)

WASHINGTON. Everyone says it. It’s standard advice. If you want a decent job, you need a college degree. Back in the day, that was pretty much true. Today, given the massive debt load students incur, maybe not. So why the continuing insistence by parents, friends and relatives that high school grads absolutely must get that college education to get ahead in the world?

The mythology of the college degree job guarantee

The problem is, in 2019, this “attend college” absolutism is simply due to habit. As each year passes, this routine advice is less and less attuned to current realities. Today, the so-called college degree job guarantee is in danger of turning into a myth.

Today, in 2019, the trades often pay spectacularly well, far better than most Americans realize (until they have to pony up a repair bill). But the stereotypes remain: You MUST go to college. If you end up going to a trade school or working in a trade, you are, therefore, a dumbbell. You’re washed up. You’ll never get ahead.

But the current truth on the matter is this. Increasingly, all the average student gets from a college education today is a huge, unpayable pile of tuition debt. Worse, if a student has pursued a degree in humanities (English, History, etc.), social studies, or the arts, or in one of the many bogus degree programs ending with the word “Studies,” that student will end up at the bottom of the queue when applying for most well-paying jobs.

And then there’s the SJW / Indoctrination problem

Worse still, colleges and universities have become one-sidedly political first and educational second. Western culture is thrown on the ash-heap, students are taught WHAT to think rather than to actually think, and are more frequently than ever programmed to place socio-political advocacy over the ability to address real problems and solutions.

But what employers still want are new employees who have learned and internalized the actual skill sets these companies desperately need. Employers don’t need attitude and theory. They need new employees that are skilled and ready to go. They don’t need social justice warriors and the agitation and lawsuits they’re sure to bring.

In 2019, we note that science disciplines have remained relatively immune from ideological programming. A degree earned in science, computer science or engineering – any discipline located in the STEM arena – is far more likely to result in gainful employment and upward mobility than one, say, in Pitcairn Island Studies.

Yet even here, the hard sciences find themselves relentlessly eroded on the edges by non-objective political advocacy and left-wing ideologies. As in, just try to earn a degree in meteorology or climate science if you don’t swear fealty to global warming climate change. Or having earned such a degree, just try to find work in your field if you’re a “denialist.” Not gonna happen. The doors are closed to free inquiry here.

How much equity do you get for earning a liberal arts or “Studies” degree?

What I’m trying to say here is that increasingly, the average college student ends up assuming a massive financial burden, and for a long period of time, by using borrowed money to pay for an “education” that frequently fails to deliver on its promises.

True, one can accrue even more debt to buy a house, paying it off over a long period of time. But in this case (save for a few years around the Great Recession), the downpayment on that house creates immediate equity. An equity that continues to grow as you pay down the mortgage. But what equity does an impoverished, underemployed college grad earn for paying down that $40,000 – $60,000 student loan? What does a student get for incurring a debt load like this?

True, certain colleges still do the job at a reasonable price. But you’ll rarely hear about them, and they’re often not “prestigious” or prohibitively expensive. As we’re seeing in the current, megabucks college admission scam is largely a result of too many parents and students stampeding into high-cost, high-prestige schools they’re ultimately not prepared for. Middle class and lower class students are also in hot pursuit of admission to these increasingly over-rated schools. But it’s these students who incur all that horrendous debt. The rich kids – or their parents – can just write a check. There is no debt for them.

Worse today, a standard college education, particularly in disciplines and faux disciplines associated with what used to be called the “liberal arts,” has become overpriced and relatively worthless in the marketplace. You could say with justice that for many students today, a college education isn’t worth the money. Particularly if you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth.

A universal problem, but worse for many black students

This problem of not getting what you paid for exists in all demographics. But recent studies note that the cost-outcome mismatch is even worse for black students, including those who attend historically black American colleges and universities, as the Wall Street Journal recently noted.  (Note: Link may exist behind a pay wall.)

“Historically black colleges and universities helped lift generations of African-Americans to economic security. Now, attendance has become a financial drag on many of their young graduates, members of a new generation hit particularly hard by the student-debt crisis.

“Students of these institutions, known as HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities], are leaving with disproportionately high loans compared with their peers at other schools, a Wall Street Journal analysis of Education Department data found, and are less likely to repay those loans than they were a decade ago.”

College Education: Degrees of Debt

The Journal article drills down next on the student debt issue.

“At historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, students are more likely to take out federal loans than those at other four-year colleges. At historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, students are more likely to take out federal loans than those at other four-year colleges….

“HBCU alumni have a median federal-debt load of about $29,000 at graduation—32% above graduates of other public and nonprofit four-year schools.

“The majority of HBCU grads haven’t paid down even $1 of their original loan balance in the first few years out of school….

“Though HBCUs typically cost less than other public and nonprofit four-year schools, these colleges have long trailed those peers on measures of debt and repayment. Now they are trailing by far greater margins.”

The reason why, the Journal concludes, is that on average, black students and their parents have less wealth to deploy toward that college degree.

Fewer resources, more intractible debt loads

“So in coping with tuition increases, black students have fewer resources to draw on than many Americans. Borrowing proportionally more has been the solution for many black students and families.”

What the Journal fails to mention, however, is that this problem is compounded, not only for black students but for students of other races as well. This becomes particularly acute when students incur massive debt to finance a degree in one of the dead-end “disciplines” we’ve already noted.

What’s wrong with learning a trade?

Meanwhile, it’s clear that an education in one of the trades is cheaper to obtain. It takes a shorter period of time to achieve. And it results in almost immediate monetary reward. A newly minted plumber starts earning decent wages right away. A newly degreed college grad in possession of one of those costly “Studies” degrees will start out waiting tables. Meanwhile, that grad faces $40,000+ in debt without any visible way to pay it down.

These observations are counterintuitive, I know, in light of still-prevailing educational mythologies. But the situation is what it is, today. I don’t see it changing very much very soon.

The outright fraudulence of the educational establishment

Tenured-in educators, teachers, professors, and a rapidly growing number of overpaid barnacles known as “administrators” make a lot of money running this game. It’s a wonder that many of them haven’t been charged with violating the RICO Act. But, since they’re largely unregulated, they have absolutely no motive for changing this system as it stands. As a consequence, a great many students are left holding the debt bag. Forever.

Another avenue: 2 years of community college before transferring

If students wish to pursue a college degree today, they should pursue a practical degree. By that, I mean a degree aimed at gaining employment in a practical, real-world profession. Further, students might also want to seriously consider gathering relevant (and transferrable) credits at a community college. Saving money for two years makes fiscal sense before transferring to a higher-coast 4-year institution. That saves a lot of money and incurs vastly less postgraduate debt. Particularly if our students are smart enough not to pursue humanities or “studies” degrees.

I’m sorry to write a response like this. It saddens me to see how badly the quality of higher education has deteriorated over the past decades. But this is current reality. Until it changes, a great many prospective American college students today are staring at the abyss. They are looking at what may be the worst 4-year investment they’ll ever make in their lives.

—Headline image: College Education 2019. Is it worth the massive debt load?
(Image via, public domain, CC 0.0 license)



Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17