postheadericon What would I change about higher education?

I have no academic administrative experience. I know very little about the day-to-day goings on of a seat of higher learning outside of my own observations as a nontraditional student. As such, the procedures, processes, elements, minutiae that make up a higher education establishment’s cog-work are not things I feel I can write about at this time with any authority. What I can write about with authority, and would change about higher education, is cost.

4-year university students largely rely on parents and loans, and to a lesser extent, as they are available, scholarships, to foot the bill for their higher educations. Those that have parental financial support or hefty academic or athletic scholarships – good on you, congratulations, you’ve managed to sidestep what in many cases turns out to be crippling debt. For the rest that rely solely on financial aid in the forms of student loans, and choose not to take on part- or full-time work or work study, higher education becomes a financial cross to bear, limiting options in terms of post-college living and working options. For those lucky enough to find a good-paying job right out of the gate, it’s not as bad, but for those that don’t? Student loans influence and affect work options. You have to make money to pay off those loans, which come due right away after graduation, meaning you do not have the luxury of biding your time, exploring options and interviewing, turning down not-so-good offers for better ones you’re holding out for. For those entering fields that aren’t known for their high salaries and top-notch benefits packages, and those that are forced to wait tables or bartend to keep up with post-graduation student loan payments, a different approach or system for financing higher education would be beneficial.

For one thing, rethinking how loans are distributed, rethinking the interest rates, may be beneficial. For example, I took out an undergraduate loan years ago. Its interest rates were, and still are, 2 percent. I took out another a few years later. Its interest rates are 8 percent, and have consistently gone up, and when I make payments on it I am essentially only covering the interest, leaving the principal amount the same. And if I miss a payment, the interest rate climbs right back up and I’m worse off than when I started. If the interest rates were locked in at 2 percent, I would be much better off financially and in a better financial position to work toward, and ultimately accept, a job or position I am happy with, instead of one that pays but does that and nothing more.

President Obama’s proposition for free community college is a good place to start, but will bring with it all kinds of issues. For example, during our in-class conversation on MOOCs, a high number of students enroll at the outset of a semester or beginning of a class. The dropout rate for those classes is high. Let’s take our nearby New River Community College as an example. Let’s say community college is made free. 5,000 students sign up for classes at the outset of an academic year. Professors and instructors, administrators, janitors, library staff, bookstore clerks, etc., are all hired on to service that number of students. Because it’s free to enroll, the 5,000 students jump at the chance to take classes. But by the end of the first month, 3,000 students, who were not really all that serious but signed up for classes because they could and perhaps felt pressure from friends, family, parents, advisers, to give it a shot, drop out. So all of a sudden you’re paying all the faculty and staff to support 5,000 students, but only have 2,000 enrolled after the first month. The cost puts the college deep into the red, and without a federal bailout will go belly-up. Or, because a community college education is now free to all and not just available for those who take educating themselves and improving their stations in life seriously, it becomes an extension of high school, and as such, an associate’s degree loses value and becomes the equivalent of a high school diploma as far as what it will do for you in life is concerned.

Student loan rethinking and relief are needed. Higher education and satisfying post-education employment should not only be an option for those that can afford it. Reserving education for the elite or financially secure places boundaries on our society’s future. How can we progress if we are only handing the tools we use to further our development to a select few fiscally lucky young people? Altering the way we pay for higher education is not a fix for this, but it’s a good place to start.

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