Ten years after she graduated from college, my daughter made a most interesting comment. "Dad, my sister and I both graduated from private four-year universities with our degrees and no student loans. All my friends seem to be buried in their loans, and I never realized what a gift you gave us. Thank you."
Well, 10 years late, but warmly received, I must say.
But, it certainly points up a major problem which is silently engulfing an entire generation of Americans, as the total student loan debt has now passed $1 trillion. One trillion dollars! That used to be a lot of money, but I suppose we are all somehow immune to the reality of debt which has become a way of life for most of our citizens.
According to The New York Times, fully 94 percent of students working toward a bachelor's degree take out student loans, and the average for all borrowers is $23,300. Ten percent of the borrowers owe more than $54,000 and three percent are over $100,000.
These loans are impossible to simply ignore. The process to discharge one of these loans through bankruptcy is extremely difficult and delinquencies will stalk the debtor through poor credit ratings and aggressive collection processes.
It seems to me that there are several issues involved that tend to exacerbate this problem.
First, many schools have been extremely aggressive in pushing students into debt, which benefits the revenues and the class sizes of the school. But the government has made strong efforts to thwart these efforts and any school that has 30 percent deficiencies is placed on a watch list and is severely limited in the ability to place future loans.
Second, too many students are persuaded to spend an easy four years pursuing degrees that have absolutely no possibility of turning the graduate into any kind of revenue-producing person. "Job- friendly degree" is a new catch phrase that many colleges are emphasizing, encouraging fields of study that lead to future employment.
Right here I enter into treacherous territory, because suggesting that certain degrees are less valuable than others will not be well received in many circles. Let me simply say this: If you are pursuing a degree that in the end will yield very little opportunity for any future career possibilities, then you must weigh in the balance the value of that degree against the debt you will incur.
I know that in the case of my daughters. One majored in communications and is now a fitness and aerobics instructor. The younger daughter majored in several kinds of languages and ended up being an airline pilot (after spending several more years working toward that end with no relevance whatsoever to her underlying degree).
The most valuable advice that my college adviser gave me came in the form of a simple question: Now that you have settled on getting a degree in political science, what do you plan to do with that degree? I had no good answer.
He directed me to take a couple of accounting courses and soon this newly graduated political scientist was headed toward a CPA certificate and a long and successful career in business, far removed from my underlying not-so-friendly degree.
Thus, while I am not judging the overall merits of any of the college degrees being pursued, I am encouraging students, and especially counselors, to be totally open and clear as to what the future benefits will yield from the field of study in which they are engaged.
Hagerty is an Oakdale real estate developer active in community nonprofits. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.