Student loan rates mask the real problem

On July 1, subsidized Stafford student loan interest rates doubled after Congress failed to act on a measure to keep rates low. The rates jumped from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, with PLUS loan rates rising to 7.9 percent. The hike would have affected more than 7 million students, costing them $2,600 extra, on average. But on July 24, the Senate passed a compromise bill that will keep student loan interest rates low – close to 3.9 percent – until 2015, and then tie interest rates to the market, with caps. The bill passed House on July 30, and President Obama has said he will sign the bill into law. It’s nice to see the rare bipartisan cooperation that led to the compromise, but the focus on loan rates is distracting us from the real problems with higher education.

Our students are paying far too much for four-year degrees that do not yield jobs after graduation. During the 2012-2013 school year, average in-state tuition at four-year public universities was $8,655, plus $9,205 for room and board; out-of-state tuition and fees were $21,706. At private four-year universities, annual tuition and fees were $29,056. Six in ten undergraduates take out student loans, whether they need to or not, and they are graduating under mountains of debt. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has found that total student debt in the United States is $1.2 trillion – the second largest type of consumer debt after home mortgages.

Meanwhile, 7.9 percent of recent college graduates remain unemployed, and more than 40 percent are underemployed or working in jobs outside their major. More, the average wages of college graduates are dropping, even while their loan payments increase. Too many are simply unable to pay off high student loans, and defaults are on the rise. All of this begs the question, are students getting what they pay for?

Historically, a college education was a good investment – college graduates used to make $1.2 million more over the course of their careers than non-college graduates. But this may no longer hold true, so students need to choose their education wisely. Not all college degrees are equal, and too many majors don’t result in good jobs later.

When considering cost, students shouldn’t overlook the option of community college. U.S. employers are desperate to hire qualified workers with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. As I have written before, community colleges are a great, affordable venue for students to get quality degrees in fields that employers really need. A two-year community college degree costs about $6,262, and graduates who get an associate’s degree in a STEM field often out-earn graduates of four-year colleges.

Are liberal arts degrees really worth $116,000? Dr. William J. Bennett, former U.S. secretary of education, talks about this in his new book, Is College Worth It? He argues that students can engage with the liberal arts in much cheaper ways, like the Great Courses audio-video lecture series, or through courses offered by organizations like the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. It’s the same information delivered by experts, without the huge price tag.