Students are not to blame for the student debt crisis

Students are not to blame for the student debt crisis

Whenever a conversation about student debt is brought up, many observers have placed the student debt problem on the shoulders of the students themselves. The popular critiques are that students are choosing majors with abysmal job prospects, or that students who are ill-prepared for college are pursuing it nonetheless. 

I find the first argument ridiculous, as the vast majority of students at public universities pursue practical majors such as business, health services, engineering or education. But the second argument brings up an interesting conversation, a conversation that will highlight two of the most important perpetrators of the student debt problem: the private sector and state governments.

Traditionally, there has existed a contingent of jobs labeled middle-skills jobs – jobs that required more than a high school degree but less than a four-year college degree. These jobs included supervisors, technicians, executive assistants, data analysts and production managers. 

But in recent years, employers have slowly but steadily inflated the educational requirements for these jobs, requiring or emphasizing the need for four-year degrees despite the questionable merit of such requirements. 

Moreover, the increasing reliance on automated hiring tools has caused some qualified applicants to be omitted or filtered out simply because a lack of post-secondary education. It’s much easier and more cost-effective to just use a screening software, which 90 percent of U.S. companies use, and slap on a degree requirement. But for applicants, it’s tough to get the interview when a computer filters you out before you even have a chance.

But while this may ease the burden on employers, it places applicants without degrees, who may well possess all the necessary skills for the job, into a precarious situation. Significant pressure is placed on these applicants to earn a degree, no matter how irrelevant or unnecessary it may be for their career aspirations. As long as employers dangle needless degree requirements, we will continue to see an increase in enrollment at colleges, both public and for-profit.

Now this influx of enrollees would not seem to be an issue, given that there is a support structure to help finance higher education. But the Great Recession prompted state governments to find budget cuts wherever they could, and funding for public universities and colleges was one of the first budget consideration on the chopping block. 

As state money dried up, universities and colleges had to rely more on tuition, which prompted tuition hikes and scholarship reductions. States have cut financial aid funding across the board, while designating a larger percentage of financial aid for “merit-aid,” as opposed to “need-based.” This trend has shifted a shrinking aid supply from those in most need to those who probably would have attended regardless of financial aid.

Looking at the state of Alabama itself, per-student funding fell by 30% from 2008 to 2017, while tuition rose by over 65% over that same time period. Is it any coincidence that our University shifted its recruiting efforts towards out-of-state students, who pay almost three times as much tuition? While the stated goal might be to recruit elite students, I have a feeling it might be a survival strategy in the face of a state budget that views higher education spending as unnecessary.

These state funding cuts have placed the cost of higher education firmly on the backs of students, as tuition growth has far exceeded median income growth. Even as federal funding for higher education has increased to fill the gap left by states, most of this aid resides in the form of loans and grants, which must be paid back with interest and have no effect on rising tuitions. 

These rising costs have deterred students from enrolling, a trend that has affected low-income Americans the most. This inability to attend college, or the decision to attend a less-selective college, has a drastic negative effect on future earnings, solidifying existing equalities.

We have arrived at an economy where a college degree is your key to employment – a key that states have made harder and harder to obtain. So how do we correct this contradiction? The two parties, state governments and private companies must work in conjunction to alleviate the problem of their own creation. 

The private sector must reassess the skills and competencies necessary for employment and partner with public entities to create the programs capable of attracting and training non-traditional applicants. 

Vocational schools may be a solution, but employers must signal a desire to hire graduates of these programs. 

Employees must acknowledge that potential talent can originate outside of a four-year college. Until that happens, vocational schools and job training programs will be a pipe dream. 

Nathan Campbell is a senior majoring in environmental engineering. His column runs biweekly. 

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