Careers and College Debt: Don’t Blame the Parents

There is no doubt that today’s college graduates often leave school owing more money than they can easily repay. Writing in The New York Times on May 28, 2010, Ron Lieber puts the blame on higher education, banks and families. Many families have, indeed, been loath to put the brakes on excessive borrowing for college, but I believe Mr. Lieber’s finger pointing at parents misses a very important point.

Parents allow, and even encourage, their children to borrow for college, because they believe higher education provides an economic return on investment in the form of a well-paid job. The better the school (so parents think), the more likely the student will access the path to prosperity. Small wonder that the parent profiled by Mr. Lieber supported her daughter’s desire to attend NYU, even if it meant borrowing many thousands of dollars. Numerous ranking systems are testament to the perceived value of a particular school.

Probe the prosperity assumption just a little, however, and it rapidly disintegrates. Top schools often have access to prestigious employers, and robust alumni networks. But that doesn’t mean there are enough highly paid jobs available for all students with debts to discharge. Nor does it mean students will be qualified for those jobs—or even want them. And, alumni networks do no good if the student has no idea how to engage with adults around career issues.

A poor economic climate favors graduates with pre-professional degrees and directly related internship experience. But who is telling that to parents who would do anything to have their son attend an Ivy League school? And who is telling students that they don’t need a $200,000 education to become a Fortune 100 CEO?

Students from all schools–but particularly liberal arts majors from top colleges–need good career advice that is based on real world, not ivory tower, knowledge. Unfortunately, the media is complicit with colleges in perpetuating the erroneous belief that all it takes is a good education to secure a lucrative job at graduation.

Surveys conducted by consulting companies like Eduventures clearly demonstrate the importance of career preparation to the prospective college parent and student. Yet few colleges provide the kind of data that would support an informed college choice. Small wonder: gathering data costs time and money. And, schools have typically not invested in providing the kind of career services that would enable students to transition easily from college to career. The truth about the job situation for most new grads from top schools is not nearly as positive as most parents believe.

Parents might assume that in a down economy, colleges and universities would pay extra attention to the offices charged with helping graduates succeed outside the academic bubble. Not so. In the past year, most college career services have been hurt as badly as other administrative offices. In a recent benchmarking survey of sixteen college and university careers offices, conducted by Curran Career Consulting, only two escaped last year’s budget axe—and neither of those received an increase in funds. Most parents would be appalled to know that the annual amount of money spent per student on career services is often less than the cost of a couple of gourmet restaurant meals.

Parents and students need the facts about career preparation before they choose a school and sign the loan forms. In the next blog post, I will suggest a number of questions parents should ask colleges and universities before making a matriculation decision. Only with this information can a parent or student definitively say the risk of debt is worth the post-graduate reward.

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