Like any parent surviving uncertain economic times, many of the conversations with my two college-aged sons revolve around one pressing topic, the Holy Grail of today’s graduates: Can you get a job, a decent-paying job, with that degree?
I’m embarrassed to admit to this singular focus because, for forever and a day, I’ve counseled my children to pursue their passions. They seem to have done that, and managed one more feat. Of the three older ones, only one, my daughter, has student debt from graduate school. The younger two will graduate with none.
“That’s the best gift in the world,” my middle son told me this week. Indeed.
Acknowledgements from our children tend to the rare, but I think he understands better than most. Many of his friends are burdened with student debt, a commitment that affects everything they do long after they receive their sheepskin. And while it’s true that a college degree usually guarantees better wages, skyrocketing tuition may delay or stop some students from enrolling. That’s an expensive mistake.
Remember hearing about that growing chasm between the haves and have-nots? It’s not just about income. It’s also about education.
At a time when the country needs a better prepared workforce, college is growing increasingly unaffordable for the middle class. If it weren’t for community colleges — I’m a proud graduate of Miami-Dade — too many worthy students might not further their education beyond high school.
This isn’t whining from the 99 percent. It’s a worrisome reality about how we invest in our human capital. The average sticker price of a college education has soared by almost 140 percent in the past two decades, the non-profit College Board estimates.
But median income for the middle class? Down 5 percent in just the last decade. And total wealth dropped 28 percent. So says an August Pew Research Center report.
I’m disappointed how little attention college affordability has gotten from our presidential candidates, both of whom are highly educated. Their focus has been on jobs-jobs-jobs, and rightly so, but consider this: A report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has estimated that the demand for educated workers may outstrip supply by 2018.
This week a national study reported that the average student-loan debt for borrowers in the college class of 2011 rose to about $26,500, a 5 percent increase from the previous year. The Institute for College Access and Success’s Project on Student Debt also said that about two-thirds of those who earned bachelor’s degrees last year had loans.
Someone had to move in with their parents because they couldn’t afford rent after graduation.
Someone put off graduate school though it means better prospects.
Someone skipped taking a job at a small non-profit and “sold out” — his words not mine — to private sector work.
Someone figures her payments will extend “until I’m a grandmother.”
These are the stories I hear from my children’s friends and from my friends’ children. They’re true, and they’re scary.
So sure, let our presidential contenders talk about jobs-jobs-jobs all they want, but let’s remind them of what they should already know. We need to encourage our youth, not throw obstacles in their way, to receive training beyond high school. An educated workforce is the best way to compete in a global economy and build a healthy middle class.
Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.