Recently, representatives of more than 200 colleges and universities from across the country gathered at Indiana University for the second annual National Summit on Collegiate Financial Wellness.
Their job: to figure out ways to get across to students at their schools how to best deal with personal finance and pay for their degrees.
The task is enormous. Student loans for higher education today top $1.2 trillion, owed by more than 40 million borrowers who carry an average post-degree debt of $29,000.
The summit concentrated on specifics — how to encourage early savings (as early as kindergarten); how to get students to understand their choices; how to make clear that loans that don’t pay for credit hours and books but instead go to spring break expenses and fun are not good loans to take out.
This effort is laudable, of course, and whether they recognize it or not at the moment, students who go in with their eyes open and can ask the right questions will more fully appreciate such knowledge a few years into their careers, when it’s time to start a family and buy a house.
Still, college students in this country did not fall into a hole filled with more than a trillion dollars of debt simply because they didn’t know which questions to ask, or were frivolous in their spending choices during those halcyon years on campus.
That happened because the system is broken, and if it doesn’t somehow get fixed, the division between the haves and have-nots in America will only widen, with fewer and fewer able to climb up the ladder that higher education has always provided.
A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a story on the German system and talked to several American students who are earning their degrees in Germany right now, essentially tuition free. That same offer is there for any international student, the article said. Most who take up the offer enroll in technical or scientific fields, where almost all classes are taught exclusively in English.
It’s not that the Germans don’t get solid value in the transaction. With a declining birth rate and aging population, a free degree is a way to attract and keep young people. And at least according to the report, it has worked very well.
This is not to suggest that American higher education should simply be made free. That’s almost certainly impossible, and even if it were, could never happen politically.
What really must happen, though, is an open approach to solutions to the higher education problem here and a willingness to consider even the most preposterous of ideas to find one that will work. We have to create if we are to find our way out of this mess.
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