Student debt is a complex challenge


Media attention to student debt became more intense when President Biden announced student debt forgiveness. The economic effects of student debt, the rising costs of higher education, fraud and abuse by some for-profit institutions, and defaults fuel political jockeying and heated criticisms. This column is not a rehash of politics nor a critique of colleges and universities.

Systemic causes of student debt will not disappear. We face very complex and intractable challenges.

Demographic changes threaten higher education. Fewer young people are in the pipeline for college and university. Families with resources to pay for college education have fewer children. Adjustment to these changes is disruptive. Some tuition-driven colleges have closed.

Prospective college students represent “underserved communities” — poor, first-generation, African American, Hispanic, recent immigrants, from failing school systems. Review enrollments in Indiana public schools. While every population is distinct, with special needs and resources, fewer students have financial and other support to graduate and repay loans. A significant percentage drop out of public schools and colleges.

One result is that more students require intense faculty and staff attention to help them overcome challenges stalking them to college. Each year our society drops off products of its failures on doorsteps of colleges as orphans. Therefore, colleges must provide additional services for mental health, safety, study habits, remedial tutoring, and course supports previously not required for students to be successful.

Good education is expensive. Additional staff, services and expenses required to enable students to learn and graduate will not soon disappear. Moreover, the amount and sophistication of what students must learn to prepare for their future require significant expenditures. President Garfield’s ideal education with “Mark Hopkins on one end of a long and a student on the other” is long gone; biology labs with frog, scalpel and basic microscope are archaic. The cost of essential lab equipment is astronomical. Faculty and students in all disciplines must have access to more elaborate resources to access and increase our rapidly expanding knowledge base.

Our colleges and universities are generally administered with careful attention to the needs of students and better stewardship of resources than other institutions in our society. Nevertheless, no student in any good college or university pays the full costs, even one bringing government grants and/or loans. Those who imply that colleges can simply lower tuition and fees without damaging quality are ignorant of contemporary realities in higher education.

Increasing college costs are also due to rising expectations and demands of students and families. Students would laugh at primitive labs; they would heap abuse at living in dorms, using facilities, or eating food that previously sustained students. Because of the demographic decline previously mentioned, especially in families who can afford tuition and fees, colleges and universities engage in expensive competition to meet rising expectations.

Delayed gratification fades — “Save now and delay until later’ is replaced by “buy now and enjoy.” This new ethos floats along on credit cards, easy loans and debt. Many students enter college already indebted and enslaved by their cars, trucks and fancy gadgets. Loans fund luxuries. Families who could afford college costs find low-cost loans financially beneficial, the payment for which is delayed while students are full-time students. Without significant ethos change, debts and defaults will continue.

One proposal is free college education, perhaps in community colleges. Good education is never free. The question is, who pays, when, for what and for whom? Community colleges as a rule are not best prepared to deal with the challenges enumerated above. Online teaching and services replace the intense personal contacts future students require. Past experience is that significant numbers of students in community colleges drop out and default on loans. For-profit colleges and technical schools have the worst drop-out and default rates. Some for-profits are judged to be fraudulent. Almost half of all students fail to get a four-year degree. Most defaults and economic distress are concentrated in drop outs.

We can begin to address systemic problems locally rather than focusing on political quick fixes that might create more difficulties than they solve. Ignore uninformed criticism of our fine institutions of higher education. Support institutions like Wabash College, which provides financial and essential supports for students, possesses resources to educate current and future students well, with a secure financial base, and with a history and future of preparing students “to think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively and live humanely in a difficult world.” Oh, yes, graduates score well on jobs, income and satisfaction.


Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.