Why Free College – Without Career Development – Would Be A Big Mistake

On January 8, 2020 in Washington, DC, I participated in the National Career Development Summit, hosted by the Career Development Coalition. We in the coalition are pushing a reform agenda that makes career development a key priority in education. (See more about CCD here.)

We’re also in thick of an upcoming presidential primary season, with lots of promises and attacks. I thought it might be a good time to encore a post I wrote in Spring 2019. I really believe that strong career development is the preventative solution to the misfires, expensive changes in campus and major, and the resulting high student loan debt that many young Americans carry for decades after college.

Originally Posted May 13, 2019

This week I came across an article describing how 3 million senior citizens are still paying off student loan debt.

Click here to read it!

One individual featured in the article, now 76, incurred the debt when she was 59 years old. She still owes $40,000 in debt.

I have a very personal experience with this issue. My father retired from his career as a pastor in his early 60s. He tried real estate for a couple of years. Then he decided that law school would be a good challenge. Lo and behold, he paid for the endeavor with federal direct student loans. After completing law school three years later, he had a law degree, but honestly, he was far too old to chart a meaningful career path in law. So, he got into mediation for renters’ rights. It was a great contribution, but something he could have easily gotten into with a short-term mediation training program. He was already an experienced counseling and pastor with a Ph.D. in counseling. He didn’t need three years of law school!

Of course, when he enrolled in law school and applied for loans, NO ONE at the law school or in the federal lending program raised a red flag. Whoa, fella, are you really sure you want to take out this student loan debt and pay it off? Probably fearing an age-discrimination accusation, everyone just kept their mouth shut.

Tragically, dad was afflicted with dementia about two years into his mediation work, so he had to stop working entirely. After I was forced to take over his financial affairs, I discovered this big pile of student loan debt. I was shocked and angry about it. Ultimately, all his federal loan debt was “forgiven” – but that really means that all of us, as taxpayers, helped pay it off.

Now, presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are fighting over who can be more generous with government spending – offering to forgive lots of existing student loan debt and making four-year college completely free for low- and moderate-income students.

We do need to rethink how we pay for higher education, but their proposals would just throw money at the symptoms and allow the underlying problem to fester. Financial worries is not the only problem with college access. The large majority of students have no academic and career plan that is informing their college decisions.

I’m not suggesting we only pay for degrees in the STEM fields, because the skills developed in liberal arts degrees, when applied in the non-profit and for-profit settings, can be very valuable.

We need to create some guardrails that protect individuals from taking on massive student loans without any sense of direction for how they will build and navigate a career. If we don’t create these guardrails, and just make everything government paid, then we just hide the problem.

Perhaps we should create new pre-requisite for any government sponsored loan, grant or tuition payment. Not only should the student demonstrate financial need, but also have completed a personalized academic and career plan, based on some minimum criteria to show that the recipient is actually putting real thought into their postsecondary participation.

Students already have to declare a college major to get financial aid, so we can’t just ask them to state a career objective. They actually need to complete an academic and career plan process, and probably that will take 20-30 hours to be meaningful. If they haven’t already done this prior to admission, maybe this has to be a first semester required course.

Warren blames the student loan crisis completely on government policy – you know, that we’re giving tax breaks to billionaires but underfunding higher education. Yes, over the decades, the onus for higher education funding has shifted from government to the individual, and student loans have made that possible.

She’s missing the BIG contributing factor – as a society we’ve made a fantasy out of the aspiration of college and university for all, saying that any form of college and any sort of college degree is equally valuable for every individual. If we’re really concerned about equity, then we need to make sure that every young person is getting high quality career development to help them make the best possible personal choice for work and learning after high school.

As a policy matter, let’s put Career Development for all ahead of increased funding for postsecondary education, and make sure the two are inextricably linked!

Hans Meeder is President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions (www.nc3t.com). NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education. 

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