In January 2019 the median household income in the United States was $63,688, a 0.3% increase over the December 2018 estimate. The growth rate of the median household income is substantial; however, according to Seeking Alpha, purchasing power for certain necessities such as healthcare, retirement income, and education, all exceed that increase. When paying for college, too many families earn too much money to qualify for too few grants, but too little to pay the sticker price. Nationally, college debt is over $1.5 trillion. Simultaneously, consumer debt for everything from Nikes and smartphones to Humvees and houses outpace real income growth for the middle class.
Americans can lose portions of Social Security checks to pay off college loans according to AARP. Students from low-and middle-income families are hit hardest, saddled with incomplete or low-value degrees, minimum-wage jobs and suffocating debt.
Remedies exist, but they require breaking preconceptions.
First, Value Colleges suggests it legitimately can take more than four years to get a degree. It may take eight years to earn a bachelor’s degree through alternative routes—dual credit in high school, community college, online courses, and part-time attendance while working—resulting in a degree and no debt. “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best,” perspectives of college could be put aside. Working and studying simultaneously for diligent students, even when starting a family, is possible.
Second, attending a community college and working 40 or more hours a week is possible. I did it. I had little social life, never went out on weekend nights and saw spring break as an opportunity to work 80 hours rather than go to Daytona Beach. I was waiting tables at a Long Island Polynesian restaurant and working as a carpenter’s helper and laborer every chance I had. I graduated with an associate degree in two years and a larger savings account than when I started. My mother and father, a kitchen cook and janitor respectively at Northport High School where I attended, couldn’t help. This is not a hard-luck story. This is the crystallization of opportunity still available even with radically increasing college costs, states Dave Ramsey. The sacrifices are greater now than in the past, and the dream must be different.
Third, if students are willing to attend a community college then a lower-cost, high-value regional university, it’s possible to beat high costs as reported by the College Board. Select a forward-looking, aspiring regional university. Don’t borrow a nickel for the first 60 hours of coursework, and never borrow more than 60% of the anticipated starting salary of your career choice for the second 60 hours. Don’t take extra courses; typically 120 hours of courses are required for a bachelor’s degree. If a counselor recommends taking a course to expand your horizons, tell them “No thanks,” opines the Dallas Morning News.
Fourth, if circumstances of birth, family or station in life allow 160 hours for an undergraduate degree that only requires 120 and it’s paid for, thank God or your lucky stars. If someone goes to Acapulco for spring break, and you are stuck at school getting ahead on homework and working extra hours to buy beans or Ramen noodles, appreciate that experience. Laying on the beach in Acapulco is overrated on borrowed funds according to the Student Loan Hero. The people who must work for what they achieve are often held in high esteem. Cheap, working-class moral philosophy? No, it is the summation of life experience. Hard work is not a disease, but a golden opportunity to perform.
Fifth, people from the lowest income families have the hardest time going to college. There is a good deal of debate about whether or not education is a private or public good. A good education that prepares people for productive citizenship is a private good that produces public benefit. Education is secured individually. It is of necessity a self-centered process. It provides skills, capabilities and insights not previously possessed, one person at a time. It is never free, and a society or individual that thinks it should be free misses the point. It cannot be free because it requires work.
The stretch for paying to attend college has expanded from those with the lowest family incomes to middle-income families and beyond. The solution is personal willingness to break preconceptions and to exercise individual liberty and opportunity in the pursuit of a better way of life.
Substitutes are, and always have been, a mirage.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/.