Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Understanding the Market

How We Used to Fund College

A number of presidential candidates are floating the idea of “tuition-free college.” I’d like to put that into historical context.

My father, who is in his 80s, only had to pay $9.00 a term to attend college at CCNY back in his day. He could easily pay that out of pocket with his part time job. In today’s dollars, that would be equivalent to paying about $90 for a full semester of coursework, or four or five classes. Not $90 per class, but $90 per semester, or about $18-$22 per class.

Do you really think that $9.00/term tuition covered the cost of running the college? Of course not. It was that cheap because the City of New York was funding it.

So when Bernie Sanders says he wants “tuition free” college, he’s just trying to set up the same system his generation had when it went to college. The same system that existed through the 40s, 50s, 60s, and the 70s most places. It’s not about getting free stuff, or not pulling your weight, but about setting up a system that actually works, like the system we had back in the 50s.

Why did the City of New York end tuition free college? Not because it couldn’t afford it. It was a political move. According to The University Against Itself (Temple UP, 2008), New York University, an expensive private institution in New York City, lobbied with city government to end state tuition so that it could be more competitive for students. The issue wasn’t financial, or that the system wasn’t working, or that New York City residents didn’t like it. It was purely political, and the politicians working now to reverse this situation are sensibly trying to work a political fix for a problem that was political to begin with.

If you graduated before college in 2008, you had a lower debt to income ratio than any college student afterwards did. If you graduated college before 1990, it was much, much lower. It’s not just about “individual responsibility” when a predatory system has been set up to trap people doing something they need to live.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Understanding the Market

Understanding College Advising

If you’re a student, you probably have a number of people advising you: teachers, guidance counselors, college admissions people, your parents… the list could go on. I’d like to help students understand what advising — and educational consulting — can and can’t do for you.

All advisors should listen to the student’s own long and short term goals, and they should ask leading questions to help the student clarify them. They should recommend a variety of paths to the student to reach those goals, but be honest, informed, and realistic about these different paths. Advisors should also provide materials to the student to help the student make better informed decisions, and they should engage in advising with the student’s best interests in mind.

But a good advisor won’t feel obligated to validate all of the student’s goals or ideas. If a student is really committed to humanities Ph.D. study or law school, for example, the advisor should still inform the student of the realities of these programs of study, not tell the student what he or she wants to hear. Being honest about the realities of a path may be discouraging to the student, but the student still needs that information to make an informed decision.

A good advisor will also be honest about the student’s demonstrated abilities so far in their educational careers. If a student’s grades are weak in math, science, or English, a good advisor will be honest with the student about the barriers those grades might present. However, a good advisor will also know that a student’s grades do not define the student as a person or necessarily summarize their potential. In other words, good advisors know that not all barriers are insurmountable.

A good advisor won’t do anything other than advising: good advisors give students facts about the field, the market, and educational options, but they don’t try to make students’ decisions for them. They also don’t give students advice intended to benefit the student’s educational institution above the student. Every B.A. program would love to say 90% of their graduates were accepted for Ph.D. study, but that doesn’t mean that 90% of their graduates should be pursuing Ph.D. study. Good advising, in other words, is never anything other than a supplement to the student’s own decision-making process. It is not supposed to or be able to take the place of the student’s own decision making.

If you’re a student, you should know that your decisions are ultimately your own. You make them and then you live with the consequences. Because these are ultimately your decisions, you should be aggressive in pursuing information that will help you make the most informed decisions possible. Get everything that you can from your advisor and then seek out other information as well. Listen to your advisors, even if you disagree with them, rather than demand to be told certain things. And, listen to a number of advisors. Don’t get your information only from one source.

You should also think generally about what you most want. Do you mainly want to make a living? Or do you mainly want to perform fulfilling work? Are you willing to make a bit less money to be more fulfilled in the kind of work that you do?

There are no right answers to these questions. Some people pursue work in high-paying fields and then burn out and make expensive mid-career shifts to more fulfilling fields. Some people pursue fulfillment but have a hard time making a decent living. Ideally, of course, we would all work in fulfilling jobs that pay well, whether we work as employees, own our own businesses, or do creative, freelance work.

We all also need to understand that the ability to do work that is both fulfilling and very profitable is dependent upon many arbitrary factors. At the least, it is dependent upon the random intersections of what this society chooses to reward financially, your own abilities, and your own interests. Just don’t mistake profitability for inherent value: scientific or engineering work generates patents and/or high end products (like bridges, tanks, and computers), so produces a lot of money, and there aren’t enough people around with math skills at that high a level, so the employee pool is small.

Someone who produces something that can be packaged and sold at high volume can also make a lot of money: one hit single can pay a lot. But while small employee pools, high end products, and mass produced products drive up the profitability of a line of work, an engineer or singer is not inherently more valuable, socially, than a middle school math or music teacher. You can’t have engineers and singers without math and music teachers. If we lost every pro basketball player in the world, the world wouldn’t be that bad off–maybe it’d even be better off in some ways. But if we lost all of our music and math teachers, that would be a long term disaster for the human race.

What might that ideal spot of wage earning and job fulfillment look like for you? No advisor can answer that question. No one can tell you what you want. Advising can only point you in a direction that leads you to your goals, so no advising will be better than your own knowledge of your own goals. Bright Futures Educational Consulting is here to help you define your goals first, and once you’ve done that, it will show you the best paths to help you meet them. Contact us for more information.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Graduation Rates

A Few Thoughts about Free College

With the upcoming election cycle, a number of candidates have been discussing a variety of plans for financing college education, some of them being called “free college for all.” I hope at a later date to provide a comprehensive overview of each of the major candidates on education, but at present I would like to take a look at what candidates have been calling “free college.”

First, we have a real problem with student loan debt. Forbes very recently described it as a $1.5 trillion crisis. I know that student loan debt has been around a long time, but it’s ballooning, and students graduating now have a much higher debt to income ratio than students who graduated before 2008. The Forbes link above provides very good historic data about how students have been increasingly taking on higher student loan debt.

Some colleges are better than others, though. As you’ll see in the Forbes data, students graduating from public colleges have the lowest rate of student loan debt (66%), followed by students graduating from private non-profit colleges (75%). The most debt-burdened students are those who graduate from private for-profit colleges (88%), and dangerously, these students also have the lowest graduation rates. The amount of debt held follows the same pattern: those who attended public colleges hold the least debt while those who attend private for-profit colleges hold the most.

Next, 2008 is an important year. It’s the year that the biggest economic crash since the Great Depression hit worldwide. Massive unemployment caused a drop in state revenues, and a drop in state revenues created almost immediate, and very large, cuts in state support for education across the boards.

We should also understand that no one is really promoting “free college.” Bernie Sanders has a plan for “tuition-free” college, which is really taxpayer supported college, but even “tuition-free” college isn’t free college. Students still have to bear the costs of room and board, books, fees, travel, and incidentals, and at many public colleges and universities room and board can be equal to or even twice the cost of tuition. For example, at UCF this year tuition is about $6,300, while room, board, and books is just over $11,500. Sanders’s plan is a great improvement over our current system, but by itself it won’t solve our student loan debt crisis.

We should next take into account state funding. If the Fed stepping in just means that states will cut their funding, that move will cause more damage. As it is, the massive state cuts to higher education funding following the 2008 crash have had ongoing and long term negative effects on higher education. So while we need Federal programs that fund tuition apart from debt, we also need commitments imposed on states to maintain their funding. If the federal government covers tuition, state financial aid should then be redirected toward room, board, and books.

But can we even afford to pay for this? Yes we can — we’re actually very close to paying for it all already. It’s more a matter of how we allocate our current spending and finding a few additional sources of revenue, but that will be the topic of a future post. Taxpayer supported college education is the only viable model going forward, but the details of this plan matter.

I would like to leave you with the thought that we do indeed need to fund college societally. A college education is not a luxury item; college educated citizens are needed for the workforce, and everyone benefits from their presence, even those who never attend college. Without college graduates we would have no roads, infrastructure, buildings, utilities, internet, medical professionals (doctors, nurses, and technicians) — the list could go on. A college education is not a personal luxury, but a societal necessity, and we need to come together to help cover it. Massive debts just mean an inevitable crisis, and right now there is more student loan debt than credit card debt.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment, Understanding the Market

Should You Study What You Love?

Most of my posts about higher education are directed toward people who are planning to go to college. What about those on the fence? Should you go to college at all?

The quick answer is, if you can do it debt free, do it. If you can do it low cost and low debt, do it. Do it and pursue your love. And I would say this on all levels, from two year degrees to Ph.D.s. If what you love isn’t practical or doesn’t provide a clear job path for you, or if it’s creative and if, in this field, being successful is like a small lottery win — still do what you love. If you can go to college debt free, or with very minimal debt, you have more to lose by not pursuing your love than by chasing it.

Now of course you need to worry about employability. One problem with higher ed. right now is perhaps best illustrated by the embedded table.

GRE Scores by Major
From the report “Educating School Leaders” by Arthur Levine, 2005. Click the image to go to the report.

This table lists the top scores on the GRE (Graduate Records Examination) by major. The GRE is typically taken by college students near graduation to qualify them for graduate study at different institutions. You can think of it like an SAT or ACT for graduate school. At the time this data was collected, it measured student competency in three areas: Verbal, Quantitative (math), and Analytical (logic). The table to the left is arranged in the order of who gets the highest analytical scores. Can you guess? No, not science or philosophy majors. English majors score the highest on both the analytical and the verbal sections of the GRE, followed by, in order, Religion, Physics, and American History.

Now of the top four highest scoring majors, only one of them seems to hold the promise of any kind of certain employment. So the situation seems to be that the least seemingly practical majors offer the highest potential for cognitive and creative self development, but somewhat lower potential for income and employment. Which is unfortunate, because of all of the people who might walk into any office to be interviewed for a job, the most intellectually capable will usually be liberal arts majors. They can think the clearest and the fastest and can learn the quickest.

The reasons for this are simple: liberal arts majors, and especially English and history majors, read the most and write the most. So do religion majors (religion is just the study of a different set of literatures). At most of my previous institutions, typical English majors will read perhaps 20,000 pages or more and write about 2,000 pages or more over the course of their study. Their writing has to be more than just summary writing too — they need to present original arguments about their topics, at least original to them within the context of limited research time. That’s why English majors were, and still are, favored by law schools. That kind of research and argument writing is great preparation for legal work.

But the problem is, employers don’t know this about liberal arts graduates, and they don’t know what to do with them. What we have is a massive disconnect, then: employers don’t know how college educations work and what they produce, and neither do they seem to know how to match employees with jobs if their education isn’t specifically vocational. Colleges and universities, on the other hand, don’t know how to sell their majors to employers. So it seems that the safe thing to do is to pursue a major that clearly matches a job, and then to get the job that your degree has prepared you for.

But no, that’s not always the safe thing to do. A highly vocational education prepares you for a very limited range of jobs, and if you hate that one job you’re educated to do, you’ll find yourself either working a job that you hate, or going and doing something else and feeling that your college education was a massive waste of time and money. And if the industry changes, or rather when the industry changes, every time the industry changes (and it will), you will have to educate yourself again. Education never is a waste of time or money, of course: it always develops you. That is an investment that never goes away. Even if you don’t use your specific skill sets, you have developed cognitively in ways you may not even know. But you still don’t want to be found in this situation.

But that brings me back to my first point: if you go to college, pursue the things that you love. If you devote your time studying what you love, you will never regret that time spent, and it will develop you in ways you never before considered possible. But as you major in what you love, also minor in something that employers recognize: marketing, PR, management, finance, coding (.html, .xml, .php, flash, java). . . there’s a wide range. I would advise all English majors to learn a programming language and web technologies. I would extend that advice to all liberal arts majors.

I have not yet made it to the central question, though: should you go to college at all? I have known many capable, intelligent, and yes educated people who have never gone to college and have done well for themselves. These people are, however, in every sense of the word, exceptional. You also probably don’t need to go to college to play pro football, basketball, baseball, or if you’re very good at making money and selling, or if you have a marketable skill and a good head for business, or if you win the lottery, but most people can’t count on any of these things.

The numbers are out there. As poorly as the job market is performing for college grads, it always performs much worse for those without a college education. Except in very rare cases, employers won’t consider your application unless you have at least a bachelor’s degree, and if you get a job, you will only go so far without a degree. Even people with some college and no degree earn more money than those with no college at all.

So if you can go to college, go to college. It’s still the smartest choice. But as I’ve been saying, study what you love, get a vocationally oriented minor, and go to school as close to debt free as possible.

How can you go to school debt free? Attend a state school. They’re cheaper. Start at a community college and transfer in state — that’s even cheaper. I had a student once describe taking out student loans so he could party during Spring break: okay, don’t do that. I had friends in high school who worked Alaskan fishing boats over the summer, made a lot of money, and then used it to pay for college during the year. And most importantly, go before you get married, and especially before you have children.

Do you need to go to college to be educated? No, of course not. I didn’t start college until I was 23, and by that time I had done more reading on my own than I was required to do for my all of my undergraduate college classes combined. I read a lot. I only went to college because, I thought, if I’m going to do all of this reading and writing I may as well earn a degree with it. So I know what it’s like to be self educated, and I also know what it’s like to go through an educational system (I have a Ph.D. in English). The only thing you need to get educated is enough of an education to get you started, a willingness to work hard, and a library.

The advantages of a college education, however, are that your knowledge is structured, that you have some guidance and confidence in your knowledge, that you have credentials, and that you’re learning with other people, which makes the educational experience that much more intense, rewarding, and meaningful. And perhaps most importantly of all: you have a sense of what other people know. You know what knowledge to take for granted. That’s part of being socialized into the knowledge that you gain, and you learn not just a bunch of information, but how to arrange that information — you learn what’s more important and what is less important.

Ultimately, what will matter is what you can do. There are plenty of useless people out there with degrees, and the people I know working at the highest levels care about what you really know and what you can really do, not so much about your credentials. Credentials are just a way to weed out people less likely to perform — they are a way for the people holding the keys to the doors to hedge their bets. But credentials are no guarantee, and too many people waste their time in college, squeak by in their classes doing minimal work, and graduate almost as useless as when they went in, usually after taking some kind of vocationally-oriented major.

How do you avoid being one of these useless, credentialed people? Study what you love.

I’d like to add that there are many two year degrees offered through community colleges that are vocationally oriented and lead to good paying jobs. Again, your training will be very narrow, as will be your skill set, but some of these jobs pay better than most four year grads make right out of college. This may be an option if you don’t know what you love, or if you know that what you really love will never be something you can do for money. But you will find if you choose this path that you will peak early in your career unless you finish a B.A. and Master’s degree, so the upper end of your earning potential — at least as far as your degree will take you — will usually be limited compared to those with more education. This path is, however, a quick way to a good paying job if you choose the right A.S. degree.

Still not sure what to do? Contact us at home@brightfuturesedconsulting.com for a free one hour consultation.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Understanding the Market

Going to Major in Education?

If you’re thinking about majoring in Education (to teach K-12), here’s what you need to know:

  1. You may be used to hearing much worse numbers, but about 17% of teachers are no longer teaching after five years. About 10% quit after the first year.
  2. Teaching is a more than full time profession, and many, if not most, teachers don’t really have the summer off. The typical work day is around 12-16 hours for many teachers, although that varies within semesters. Don’t go into teaching if you want easy work. You don’t get overtime pay.
  3. The highest paying states in 2016-17 were New York ($81,902), California ($79,128), and Massachusetts ($78,100), with Mississippi ($42,925), Oklahoma ($45,292) and West Virginia ($45,555) paying the least. You might note how these numbers will inflate average teacher salaries nationally, as two of the highest paying states are also the most populated states. Follow the link above to get information about your state.
  4. Teachers across the country generally feel disrespected. If you’re thinking about teaching, you’re in it for your students, and those who manage to keep teaching do so because they keep their eye on that prize. Speaking as someone who chaired a Master’s degree program with a lot of teachers, I can vouch for this myself.
  5. K-6 teaching is more manageable in terms of disciplinary action than middle school or high school, depending upon area, so keep that in mind.
  6. If you’re thinking about High School teaching, in many schools that’s almost a double major, as you need both education and subject matter training. Check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics for more information about high school teaching as a profession.

My advice for people thinking about teaching?

  • First, get a sense of being in a classroom as a teacher through internships no later than your junior year if at all possible. That’s when you’ll want to change majors if you change your mind. Some students do.
  • Next, no matter where you teach, income will be relatively low compared to cost of living. That means avoid getting your education degrees at expensive, private colleges. Attend much lower tuition public colleges and avoid debt as much as possible.
  • Finally, if you’re really called to teach, nothing else will quite satisfy. Don’t let the information above discourage you. But go into it with your eyes open, and research the best districts in your state wherever you may work. Definitely attend college in the state in which you want to work.

Bright Futures Educational Consulting can help you think through your degree choices and options even after your degree. Give us a call.