A recent front page story in my local newspaper put the student-debt crisis in perspective: On average, this month’s college graduates will owe more than $20,000 each.
A few days later, an editorialist suggested that a bachelor’s degree isn’t worth what most people pay for it. Many young people would be better off, she opined, just getting a job that doesn’t require a degree. I was reminded of the story that circulated widely last year about a young woman who took out almost $100,000 in student loans to finance a degree from an elite private university who now finds herself drowning in debt and unable to find a job.
All of which left me wondering: Does a college degree have to be prohibitively expensive? And does it really matter all that much where you get your undergraduate degree?
I believe the answer to both questions is no. A person who started at a community college and then transferred to a state university could probably earn a degree for well under $20,000. And while the kinds of institutions that charge $100,000 and up for four years would doubtless disagree, I’ve seen plenty of evidence over the years to suggest that students who graduate from relatively inexpensive state institutions are just as successful as their peers with high-priced degrees from private universities.
For many high-school students, the idea of attending a two-year campus is about as attractive as a ban on text messaging. Going to a community college because you can’t get into a “real college” has been a standing joke for so long that NBC developed a sitcom around the premise.
And yet the list of those who started at two-year campuses and went on to great success, even fame and fortune, is long and illustrious. It includes former U.S. Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, former Speaker of the House Jim Wright, journalist Jim Lehrer, filmmaker George Lucas, billionaire Ross Perot, and playwright Sam Shepard.
Are there advantages to attending a top university if you can afford it? Sure. Is it worth going into debt for the rest of your life? Probably not.
My first thought when I read about the young woman with the six-figure debt, was, “here’s somebody who really should have taken advantage of her local community college.” She might now owe less than $10,000, which she could realistically hope to pay off before she qualifies for social security — even if she can’t find a job in her field.
It’s a shame no one gave her that advice five or six years ago. But perhaps as word continues to filter out that community colleges are economically viable options that won’t derail anyone’s career, we’ll see fewer of these student-debt horror stories.