The rising economic toll of attending college has pushed many Americans to rebel against what has quickly become a status quo of massive student debt.
Some argue that maybe European schools have the answer, while others simply urge graduates to default on their student loans. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that college is no longer worth the money. It’s no surprise that fixing the cost of higher education has become a central talking point for 2016 presidential candidates.
But there are also those who think we’re approaching the student debt problem all wrong.
According to Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of Higher Education at Seton Hall University, the problem lies not so much in how much money students are borrowing, but in their earning power after graduation.
In a post for The Conversation, Kelchen argued that the “crisis” of mounting student loan debt is not actually a crisis for everyone.
“Although there are some exceptions, the crisis is generally not with people like my wife and me, who have advanced degrees and the ability to manage high debt payments due to earning more money,” Kelchen wrote.
“Rather, the crisis is among students with relatively little debt but dismal job prospects.”
Kelchen points out that of all the students who defaulted on their loans in 2003-2004, 63 percent were dropouts. Only 4 percent of those who defaulted were those who earned an associates degree or higher.
That’s why, according to Kelchen, legislators and those who are seeking to reform the cost of college should focus specifically on how to help those who don’t actually finish their degree. Interestingly, that also tends to mean helping those who have significantly less student debt than those who do graduate.
In fact, as Inside Higher Ed’s Matt Reed pointed out, a recent report by The Boston Globe even suggests that when it comes to tuition costs, “As the cost of the college goes up, the default rate goes down.”
“In broad terms, the community college sector — the most affordable, by far — had the highest default rates,” Reed explained, reminding that the study was conducted in Massachusetts, where “the community college default rate was lower than the national average.”
In other words, those who attend an expensive college, even if they’re forced to take out loans to do so, are statistically better off financially than those who attend community college or drop out to avoid more student debt.
As I wrote back in April, recent studies have found that the current job market requires workers with college degrees, even more so than just 20 years ago. So shirking a degree with the hopes of better financial stability has a high probability of backfiring.
“The real crisis isn’t around student loans,” Reed concluded. “It’s around entry-level salaries.” And as plenty of politicians are quick to explain, wages, entry level or not, have remained stagnant for the past half-century.
Whether or not you have $2,000 of student loan debt or $20,000 is irrelevant if you can’t afford to pay your rent.
JJ Feinauer is a writer for Deseret News National. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: jjfeinauer.