Higher education in America lends itself to Dickensian descriptions as living in the best of times as well as the worst.
Let’s start with the best from our perch here in Wisconsin.
Our state has first-class public and private universities pushing the boundaries of thought and science. They attract the best and brightest across the world. There are ample opportunities for students to affordably get their foot in the door of a degree at two-year schools. A network of technical and community colleges opens doors to industry-friendly training that can lead to careers often more secure and well-paying than ones for four-year degree holders.
In short, we’re living in an age with greatly expanded access to college whether it’s at a bustling state university, a small liberal arts college or a technical college tuning high-tech machinery.
Yet through more than six months of reporting in the Degrees of Debt series, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin journalists have described circumstances where college is threatening to become the birthright of the well-off alone.
Students in Wisconsin leave school with the third highest amount of debt in the country, about $29,000. Most colleges here saw costs rise more steeply for low-income students than for their peers from 2009 through 2014. Collectively, the country is weighed down by $1.3 trillion in student debt.
That burden is showing up in unpleasant ways, delaying first-home purchases and keeping young adults living in parent’s basements for longer than either of them wants. Yet the full extent of the problem is often downplayed by older generations who came from a time when part-time jobs paid better, the state offered more generous college funding and schools charged far cheaper tuition.
In short, there are growing cracks in the premise that college can be an equalizer for children of modest means. There are profound social and economic consequences. Researchers estimate by 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require post-secondary education. Wisconsin is not prepared for that, with just 58 percent of its students pursuing higher education last year — only a 1 percent increase from where we were a decade ago.
As we reported the Degrees of Debt series and held 10 events across Wisconsin, listening to the concerns of students, college leaders, businesses and taxpayers, a few potential solutions rose to the surface:
- Make financial preparation more robust. Through dozens of interviews with experts, students and parents, there is universal agreement that better career and college planning would make a huge difference.The state Department of Public Instruction has laid out a sound set of recommendations, but there are no mandatory state requirements for financial literacy. Some schools incorporate paying for college into financial literacy, but others do not. Some have wonderful partnerships with local business groups for hands-on career days, others offer no such chances to learn about apprenticeships and job opportunities. Many of the worst debt stories we heard came from students who shifted schools and majors. While it is not unusual for young people finding their way to switch gears, much of this could be helped by a more rigorous and systematic program to explore college and careers.
- Expand higher education vocabulary and understanding. Wisconsin will be launching a new program, Academic and Career Planning, in grades 6-12 next year. In addition to giving students practical information about continuing their education beyond high school, the program should help puncture myths. Too much human capital is being wasted on outdated perceptions and stereotypes about college. We dismiss technical education and the liberal arts far too frequently. To flourish, Wisconsin desperately needs smart workers who can program high-tech machinery and think independently and critically. The talents needed to be great workers and citizens are not mutually exclusive.
- Fix the growing income gap. Outside of the sheer level of debt, the most alarming discovery in the series is the level at which poor families are being burdened with cost increases higher than others. Some institutions, like Lawrence University, are aggressively moving to merit- and income-based systems where students accepted at the school are eligible for higher levels of financial aid and assistance based on family incomes. State loan forgiveness programs can serve as a great equalizer, especially for hard-to-fill professions. Wisconsin companies also have a potentially game-changing recruitment tool in attracting young workers by touting loan assistance programs as part of their benefits packages.
- Consider a trial program to make two years of college free. Minnesota has invested $8.5 million in a pilot to allow students free access to certain qualifying programs at community colleges and technical schools. The goal is to steer students into training for jobs that are in highest demand, while making higher education affordable for those who might otherwise be priced out. Wisconsin state Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, introduced legislation last year to offer two years of college debt-free for Wisconsin residents at a state technical college or UW school. Support for each student would be determined after other sources of financial aid were considered. Wisconsin would be well served to test such a system with a pilot program pairing students with businesses facing acute labor shortages. It could partner industry with local technical colleges or community colleges to attract new talent.
Read the original editorial from the Appleton Post-Crescent.