Instapundit pointed to this think-tank piece today that, I think, is worth reading:
Americans borrow roughly $126 billion a year to pay for college...This heavy debt load is causing much suffering...there is plenty of blame to spread around.
The piece discusses the government's portion (encouraging people to go into debt to start degrees they likely won't finish), the financial institutions' portion (structuring the loan system poorly) and the universities' portion (spending enormously, mostly with student debt), as well as the part that's the fault of students and their parents:
While earlier generations that paid only a few hundred dollars a semester can perhaps be forgiven for continuing to believe that college is a nearly risk-free decision financially, today's students do not have that luxury. Exploding tuition and the related horror stories about crushing debt loads appear regularly in the media. Yet students and parents largely ignore these warnings. The views that more (formal) education is almost always a good thing and that the loans needed to finance it are "good debt" since it is an investment are both widespread and contribute to the problem. While true to an extent, these views can be and are being carried too far by some, blinding some individuals to the dangers of debt.
I have been following the student-debt story with some interest, I suppose because I can feel it changing my mind.
I was graduated from high school in 1992. When I was in high school and college -- public high school, state university -- I believed that college was a risk-free decision, with a few caveats. I understood that if circumstances forced you to drop out, your money and time might be wasted; and, in my mind, you had to major in something "useful," otherwise it was your own darn fault if you couldn't get a job afterward. I also found it really hard to understand why anyone would spend so much money going to a private school when there was such a thing as a state university, but I chalked that one up to taste. So I had some pragmatism, but really, I completely bought the "thou must attend college or be a loser" line.
Hardly anyone in my peer group chose not to enroll in college the same year we graduated. A few ran into hardships that prevented their enrolling, but I would have been rather scandalized if any of my friends were to say "Sure, I could go to college, but for me and what I plan to do, it's just not worth the cost." I would have been thinking, I thought you were a contender, but I guess you're just a bum.
And hey, it wasn't too long ago that I wrote this semi-famous post (the Anchoress linked to it, and it's still one of my highest-traffic posts ever). I am not repudiating what I wrote there about whether education is "wasted" on a stay-at-home mother -- and you'll note that it contains a caveat about not going into debt -- but it is pretty clear that I come at the subject with an underlying assumption that more education is generally better.
I had the luxury of attending college and graduate school on scholarship, which undoubtedly affected my opinion. Hey, if someone offers you free money, it changes the calculation. But I find myself with different thoughts these days. We expect our kids to go on to some kind of additional training after high school, but I try to talk about it in a more open-ended way. Four years at a four-year college doesn't automatically make sense for every bright and motivated high school graduate anymore. Especially not if you would have to go into debt for it. There are other ways to be.
Maybe it's the homeschooling habit. You see all the opportunities for real self-education that are out there. You get used to thinking that a lot of the time, credentials are not much more than pieces of paper. You understand the value of your family's time, and you get used to saying "no" to some admittedly cool-sounding enrichment opportunities because they make it hard for everyone to sit down to dinner together, or because you'd have to drive across town in rush hour traffic. You want the best for your kids, and it turns out that your idea of "the best" is different from what you expected it would be.
Added: I seem to be getting some feedback that assumes I'm saying that all degrees are meaningless paper, or that private college is a waste of money, or that liberal arts degrees aren't worth it, or that loans are always a bad thing. Not at all. But there seem to be a heck of a lot of people taking out loans and shelling out cash who don't understand the concept of return on investment. I think some of them don't understand the concept of "loan."
Some people may be carrying assumptions that were valid a generation ago but aren't anymore. Once, *any* college degree was a ticket to a good paying job. Guess what. Now so many people have college degrees that the value of a college degree has been diluted. Once, college was less expensive. It's more expensive now. Ergo, some prices are too high to pay for some degrees.
A lot of it depends on what you expect to get out of it. And if you are seeking higher education not because you expect it to help you earn more money (or to earn acceptable money but at a job that you might enjoy more), but just to make yourself a more well-rounded person, well, let's just say I'm not really happy about my taxes funding your defaulted loan...