Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Is College Debt All Bad?

Plenty of people talk about why college debt is bad, but thinking of higher education as a mere matter of dollars and cents, as Michelle Singletary seems to, is a mistake.

Here’s the single most important reason to go into student debt: to get into the very best school in your field if you want to become eminent in your chosen career.

Not only will you have exposure, often directly, with the outstanding achievers, both professors, visiting speakers, and fellow students, but you will have the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of developments within it. The people you get to know at that kind of college are likely to be the people you want and need to know later. The alumni of an outstanding school will become your personal old boy network. Your classmates will become the next generation of important people in the field. Some of them will become your friends, some your rivals, and others will be part of a network that will help you make career moves far in the future.

This is not a universal situation. At lots of schools, and in most fields of study, neither the professors nor the alumni nor your fellow students are likely to be significant to your future career success. Classmates might be potential friends or mates, but statistically, they seldom are potential colleagues. The reason for this is that most people who go to college do not end up making a career out of their college major (also, huge numbers change their majors), and even if they do, they do not reach for the top in their field. Only a very small minority do. There’s a huge difference between having a successful career as a scientist and being the scientist who is appointed by the president to run NIH, for instance. As for graduate school, which used to be for the elite, these days just about everybody gets a masters, so even there you are not necessarily hanging out with the future movers and shakers of your field. Most people you meet in an average college will not be important to your professional future.

If you plan to be a teacher, you don’t need to go to Harvard. If you intend to be an accountant, the same. Most careers can be prepared for quite adequately through the state university system.

High-profile institutions have their share of washouts, of course, but in the fierce competition to get accepted, there tends to be a larger percentage of highly motivated, driven students than there will be in a school for which acceptance standards are looser. The stakes are high and even seventeen-year-olds know it. There are careers for which the networking advantages of attending a high-profile college are so valuable that tuition debt is simply the cost of access, and well worth paying.

Not every teenager is suited to or driven to the kind of career that requires intense networking to achieve a high profile position. There is no point in going to a school where the student will be a fish out of water, either, unless that person has an exceptionally strong, determined personality. Of course it has been done, but when an exceptional child is sent to a school filled with the exceptional, there is a distinct possibility of personal adjustment problems interfering with the work of being a student. Parents should analyze their child's chances of making the most of an expensive prestige college experience. Another factor to consider is the financial stability of the student’s family. If the only way to finance a particular college choice is through punishing loans that the family can barely manage to pay, tremendous pressure is put on everyone. The student is under pressure to follow a predetermined career path and succeed. There may be hostility from siblings not given the same opportunity because the parents are completely tapped out paying for the first child. Unless the student is a perfectly performing robot who never makes a false move, always is lucky to be in a strong economy, and feels the moral responsibility to promptly pay the family back for the sacrifice, the dreams for which the debt is undertaken may not come true. That’s a huge moral load to put in the shoulders of a young adult.

Debt should be an important consideration when choosing a college, but not the only consideration.

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