The high cost of higher education

Published 10:47 am Wednesday, April 30, 2014

At the end of a long semester, with every line of every syllabus crossed for both the minor and the major, the all-important sheepskin is finally within reach. This is cause for celebration for a certain young man of my acquaintance. He is precisely three days away from making research papers just an unfortunate chapter in his personal ancient history.

So with 130 hours of college credit under his belt, this near-graduate is preparing to enter a job market that, according to analysts, may not be too rosy. In fact, many of those who marched to “Pomp and Circumstance” just a year ago year say their diplomas haven’t provided the magic ticket to success they expected. They have been forced instead to settle for low-wage jobs outside their field of study.

Bummer. Low wages (and no wages) have also made it difficult for recent mortar-board wearers to make good on their student loans, which currently average $29,000 per graduate. Double bummer.

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Now at this point we might need to call for the assistance of an economics professor to explain the full impact of some 37 million Americans bearing a load of student loan debt totaling 1.1 trillion dollars. Or maybe not. (That’s a lot of zeroes for those of you who didn’t major in math.)

Fortunately my acquaintance is what you might call a “non-traditional student” in that respect. He’s put himself through one of the state’s most expensive private institutions and is finishing debt-free, thanks to a firm commitment to stay that way. Admittedly, several scholarships and a strong back didn’t hurt, either. He’s also different in that he did it the old-fashioned way – in eight semesters – finishing at the ripe old age of 21.

I got the lowdown on the take-five-years-to-get-a-four-year-degree trend from a 2011 graduate of the same center of higher learning. “It seems like some students drag out their time in school because student loans are made to look attractive,” he told me. “It’s easy to get them. There’s no deterrent to changing majors.”

It doesn’t take a doctorate to figure out that students who write the checks themselves each semester are more inclined to put the PlayStation away and get serious about deciding on a degree. But who am I kidding? Thinking that way went out with logic classes long ago.

It’s also no surprise to me that my grad-to-be friend points to a recent internship with a local law enforcement agency as the most beneficial component of his course work.

Watching raids, seeing warrants served, dismantling a still, attending drug court and spending one-on-one time making rounds with Circuit Judge Mike Taylor evidently did more for him than the $200 Criminal Justice textbook he’ll sell back next week for $33.60.

Sounds almost like an apprenticeship, doesn’t it? I believe it was that educational approach that produced the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Henry Ford – no student loans required.

“I learned a lot, things you can’t learn in a classroom,” he told me. “I also hope my internship will prove helpful in my application process, because most employers are looking for someone with experience.”

Imagine that.

So to my nameless interviewee (I kept my promise) and all the others who are moving their tassels this month, congratulations. May the high cost of your higher education pay off, or at least get your foot in a door where it will.

Wesson resident Kim Henderson is a freelance writer who writes for The Daily Leader. Contact her at