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Opinion Student debt the next ‘bubble’

George HasaraI asked my son Nick if what he learned from MBA school was necessary for doing his job well. Somewhat surprisingly, he said, no. The knowledge gained during the two additional years of college wasn't essential to job performance. In essence, he paid for a very expensive screening mechanism – something the school and the bank were better off for.

Unfortunately, many graduates don't end up with a high-paying position to offset their high student loans. Nationally, student loan debt is estimated at a trillion dollars, or nearly $30,000 a person on average. No doubt, there are those who would be thrilled if they only owed the “average” amount. The mind may be a “terrible thing to waste,” but somewhere along the way it has become a very expensive thing to educate.

Many economists predict that student debt will be the next financial bubble. However, unlike a house or a car, a college degree can't be repoed. Most student loans are not forgiven by filing bankruptcy. You may forget what you learned in school, but the loan officer isn't going to forget what you paid for it. The economic impact transcends into other areas. Debt-strapped individuals find it harder to buy a home or start a business, further hampering the general economy as well as their general wellbeing.

Theoretically, the education field should be on the cutting edge of technology and innovation. Far too often it is trapped in a time warp. While there is some movement toward such things as online studies, most colleges are “old school” with a “brick and mortar” presence along with the spiraling expenses necessary to maintain that traditional approach. College costs have been offset (so far) by student debt, much of it in the form of government or government guaranteed loans. Like the housing bubble that was inflated by “easy” money, many students are buying something they can't afford and I dare say – don't need.

There is no shortage of college grads who are working in fields other than what is printed on their diplomas – if they are working at all. It seems that the four-year degree has become the new high school diploma. Perhaps we should simply have grades K-16. In another age, completing high school was an accomplishment - something employers were impressed with. No Child Left Behind and other measures have made equality a synonym for easy. Now, a high school diploma is important mainly in the sense of getting into a four-year college which in turn is necessary for getting into grad school and so on.

As higher education prices itself out of the market, there may be a renewal of apprenticeships. General studies are well and good but do little to train people for a specific profession. Apprenticeships have the added advantage of testing a person to see if they are actually suited for a particular type of work - something that a classroom can't do. This is a benefit for both the worker and the employer.

It's predictable that employers raise the threshold of educational requirements for hiring when overall standards are lowered. Some, like my son Nick, may be able to clear the bar, but for an ever increasing number, the price of an employment screening mechanism in the form of a college degree, is a luxury they can't afford.


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