How many loving parents would encourage their children to smoke cigarettes? How many sensible moms and dads would recommend that their kids take recreational opioids? What about student loans? Would any rational parent recommend that their students be graduated with more debt than they are likely to earn in a year?
The counter argument is that college graduates earn more than their peers with only a high school diploma. Life time earning for college grads are significantly better. True enough. In general. But like all statistics—the average person has one breast and one testicle—a little digging reveals deeper truth. Graduating medical school with a quarter million dollars of debt might make sense. An orthopedic surgeon can pay back $250,000 in an afternoon. But she better be all in all along the way. And she better have the horses and the whip every step. Because if she doesn’t get near perfect grades in medical school, if she doesn’t pass STEP ONE, if she doesn't match for residency, if she doesn’t score that monopoly money salary, then she is done. Finished. Kaput. Without the enormous payout at the end of the rainbow, her debt will destroy her. She will never buy a home, never afford to have a child, never save for retirement. Taking on debt—even for medical school—is like walking a tight rope stretched between two tall buildings. You better know exactly what you are doing and one misstep is a big oops.
For Law School the situation is even worse. There are more lawyers than there are jobs. A public defender should be a sought after first job. But in Miami, for example, a PD will earn around $47,500/year. For prosecutors with the state attorney’s office even lest--$41,500. If these first positions are resume builders that segue into profitable private criminal defense gigs, the economic future is reasonable. But after four years of undergraduate education and three years of law school, if the debt is $150,000, that’s over $1K/month just to stay current. Paying down principle is a leprechaun.--more often talked about than seen.
Of course for undergraduate education, the numbers are even more untenable. Owing more than you will earn in a year is a tragic mistake. At least cigarettes come with a warning on the side of the package. And everybody knows that opioids killed more Americans last year than car accidents and gun violence combined. But student loans are also a silent destroyer of young lives.
Only the best of the best come away unscathed. What a pyramid scheme. We all understand the scam of the slot machine: The jackpot winner hears bells and sirens as coins are ejected from the machine. Lights flash as attractive young people arrive with buckets to help collect the overflowing coins. But when the money goes in there is little sound. Each dollar inserted makes a near-silent thud. Similarly, those with great jobs are talked about. Whereas the 22-year-old who dropped out after three years of college with $90,000 of debt now working in a warehouse making $14 an hour is seldom part of the discourse.
Speaking of long odds, there are some 14,000 high schools in this country with a football team. Several dozen student/athletes on each squad is well over half a million kids total. Thirty-two NFL teams times 53 players is under 2000 professional athletes, only some of whom retire in a given year. Do the math: your high school athlete is unlikely to get that million dollar professional football salary. Are the odds better or worse for the art history or gender studies major? And don't get me started about good but not great Ph.D.'s looking for a teaching job--any teaching job--at any university anywhere.
The take away from this essay is not to insist that/hope that/push for your child to be one of the few doctors, lawyers, college graduates, football players who survives the brutal odds for success. To the contrary, the lesson is that a contingency plan is critical. And to acknowledge that by definition, not every child is that one in a hundred. There has to be a conversation about the rest of the children.
If big name, expensive undergraduate institutions are two parts awesome education, one part connections to life long friends, and three parts vanity, what are the alternatives? Many people don't drive $300,000 cars yet manage to get from here to there. Similarly, not every student can afford expensive college. Fortunately, the solutions while imperfect are abundant. Two years of community college saves a fortune. So does applying to a college where your credentials make you a star. Big tuition discounts--ahem, of course I meant 'merit scholarships'--are available. Understanding what you're getting into is probably the most cogent course. With cigarettes and schedule one drugs, the best way to stop is not to start. Knowing what your long term debt service is going to be before you borrow your first dollar is similarly critical.
There is a great deal to be said for the value of four years of undergraduate college. Indeed, there is no other route to medical school, law school, or the NFL without it. We just have to be sure if our kids aren't able to reach the golden ring that they don't, as a result, fall off the horse and take the better part of a lifetime to recover.