Editorial — The cost of an education

In the days long before ESPN when the Vietnam War was just getting started, a basketball coach from a small, southern college was recruiting a small, modestly-talented player to become part of his team.

“Son,” the coach said in his best flat-topped, coach-as-father manner, “I’m offering you the chance at a $5,000 education.”

Five thousand dollars. That was for all four years, by the way, and at the time it might as well have been all the money in the world.

Back in those days, students who didn’t receive scholarships really could “work their way through college.” Some of them waited tables, pumped gas (at now-extinct places called “full-service filling stations”). Others took jobs cutting lawns in the summer or shoveling snow in the winter; a couple wrote obituaries for the local paper.

They had the chance to earn money that would help pay for their college tuition. Splice together enough part-time jobs and a few student grants and loans — together with a scholarship here or there if you were lucky enough to get one — and college could be affordable, even for those who sprang from families lacking financial portfolios.

But affordable college has seemingly gone the way of the rotary telephone. Today, according to a story that appeared last month in several major national news outlets, millions of Americans now owe more for student loans than they owe on their credit cards.

For generations we’ve touted, rightly so in most cases, the benefits that arise from a college education — and not just those potential benefits on the financial ledger. We’ve told young people that the better jobs go to better-educated applicants, and it’s to the point where today’s college degree is yesterday’s high school diploma. You absolutely must have one.

Yet there’s more to a college education than the paycheck that one hopes is available when the degree is obtained.

There’s the benefit of being exposed to knowledge — and people — you might never have encountered anywhere else. There’s the sense of satisfaction that always arrives unexpectedly for the student who, as if struck by inspiration, suddenly realizes he’s studying just for the sake of learning something.

Knowledge for its own sake is a wonderful thing. “There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance,” said Socrates, who may have oversimplified things a bit.

But today knowledge comes with mountains of debt — it’s not unusual for a student to owe close to $100,000 or more after achieving just a bachelor’s degree. Head to graduate school, law school or medical school and you’ll need a financial planner to find ways out of the debt hole that’s bound to be dug.

Perhaps the very wealthy are immune, but the rest of the world isn’t. Even modest students attending public universities end up making friends — or enemies — with Sallie Mae or other lending institutions.

In other words, in today’s complex and technical society, the only way for young people to get ahead is to start out way behind.

Take one local family’s experience: During one year in the 1990s, they had a son who was a senior at one of the Big Ten Conference’s most academically prestigious universities; a middle son who was a freshman at a just slightly-less-expensive private university in Ohio; and two younger children in local Catholic schools.

Tuition costs for that one year? In excess of $70,000. So they did what the U.S. government does when it wants a new submarine — they borrowed the money. Only difference is the family is still paying back the loans.

So why write about this? What does this have to do with the Archdiocese of Louisville or faith?

It is an issue of social and economic justice. Just last week the Catholic News Service carried a story about the nature of student debt and the necessity of a college education. “There is a common good here,” said Charles Flynn, president of the College of Mount St. Vincent in Riverdale, N.Y. “We as a society will thrive when students receive a college education.” At issue, he said, is “how we as a nation will ensure that higher education is available for students of every background.”

Just to see how far the debt problem has evolved, the CNS story reported that a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that 69 percent of religious orders turned away at least one person “because of student loans,” and many religious communities have had to ask young people to delay their applications because of unpaid student loans.

The solution? That’s anyone’s guess at this point. But the good thing is people are beginning to recognize that there is a problem. That’s always the first step toward finding an answer.

Glenn Rutherford
The Record

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