Guest column: Not everyone can or should attend college

Student loan debt is a serious and daunting thought for many prospective and current students throughout the United States. Student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt as the number two debt held by individuals today, second only to mortgages. According to The Project on Student Debt, the average student loan debt in Virginia is about $25,000, while the national average hovers around $26,600. The cost of going to college is increasing at alarming rates that far exceed inflation. Tuition costs are going up for two main reasons. First, having a degree will lead to better job prospects. That is true; having a college degree is a whole lot better than not having one, the same way that having a master’s degree is better than a bachelor’s degree. Prospective students realize this and are convinced that a degree equals a job, which is not only false but more importantly a costly decision. The second cause is increased demand from increased government subsidies of education. Pell grants, Stafford loans and tax credits are all terms many students who receive financial aid may have heard before. When the government subsidizes education in this way, the demand for college goes up. As demand increases, so does consumption and thus price. Government subsidies have the intended effect of making college cheaper, but in reality, it makes it more expensive on the greater portion of students.

As the demand to go to school is driven by better job prospects and government subsidies of education, colleges meet that demand with higher prices. Students are oftentimes forced to take on tens of thousands of dollars through private and public loans to pay for the education that is expected of them in the current education paradigm of everyone attending a four-year college or university. However, students struggle to pay for their student loan debt for two main reasons.  First, many students drop out of college before they even obtain a degree. Nearly half of all students in the current postsecondary education system will not finish school. This causes a problem where they get the brunt of student loan debt but not the benefit of having a college degree. Second, many students obtain majors in fields that are not in high demand in the current job market. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) job market is increasing and in high demand. The same can’t be said for many jobs in the humanities and social sciences. This is not to discourage students from getting their majors in the humanities and the social sciences, but rather a word of caution to be prepared for the hostile and changing job market. Also, student debt is not one of those debts from which you can escape. You can get rid of credit card debt through bankruptcy or failing to pay your mortgage through foreclosure, but student debt looms over you until you pay it off. Deductions in federal entitlement benefits and garnishment of paychecks are a sad reality for many people with student loan debt.

However, this negative and gloomy predicament doesn’t need to happen. We can change the education paradigm to prevent recklessly pursuing expensive education and thus obtaining soaring student loan debts. We as a society need to let people know that seeking other, more affordable paths is nothing to be ashamed of. Community college, trade and vocational schools and the military are all options that should be promoted and encouraged in our secondary schools, not the idea that one should only go to a four-year college or university if one wants to do anything with one’s life. The reality is that not everyone is meant for college, whether it’s because they are not prepared academically or because they cannot afford it. The social stigma associated with not going to a college or university needs to stop. The quicker that happens, the quicker and more likely it is that people will decide to take a path geared more towards their needs and desires rather than that of their high school guidance counselor or teachers. We have the opportunity to help fix one of the largest problems that looms over our postsecondary education system and all it takes is a shift in mindset. Sounds like a little to give up and a lot in return.

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