June 2, 2012

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: Richard Posner: Is Student Debt Excessive?

The change in the financing of college from the 1950s, when I was growing up, is dramatic. In those days your family paid for your tuition and living expenses, or you received a scholarship from the college (and perhaps in partial exchange for it had to work part time for the college, for example by waiting on tables in the college dining room), or you worked your way through college, or college was free—or you didn’t go. But you didn’t borrow, and you didn’t graduate with any debt, and your career choices, and your marital plans, were not influenced by your having to pay off a substantial debt. This system of financing college education was feasible because a much smaller percentage of young people went to college in those days, in part because the financial returns to college were smaller than they are today. Student loans enable many students to go to college who couldn’t afford college without them yet would benefit from a college education, though student loans also enable colleges to jack up tuition, for which the students pay in the end unless they default on their student loans.

A complication for high school students trying to assess the value of a college education is the nation’s current economic situation. True, as in the 1930s, so now, the unemployment rate of college graduates is well below that of other workers. But it is more than 5 percent, which is twice what it was five years ago. And it is about twice that high—10 percent, at least—for young college graduates. If one adds in underemployment, that is, employment in a job for which a college education is not a qualification—for example, a college graduate employed as a waiter—the combined rate of unemployment and underemployment is almost 33 percent for all college graduates under the age of 25. (College graduates who are in graduate or professional school rather than have on average better job prospects than those seeking work with just a B.A. or B.S. under their belt.) Wages for young college graduates in the work force have also fallen.

No guarantees — which is why you don’t want to take on too much debt. If only there were a short, readable book on this subject out there somewhere. . . .

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