Students at community colleges (and regional publics) and debt

Students at community colleges have a different relationship to taking out student loans than do students at four-year institutions, argues Matt Reed, in his Confessions of a Community College Dean today in  Those students are more likely to have jobs and less eager to accumulate debt, unsure of what the future may bring.

Students at regional public universities like mine are often closer in inclination to Matt’s community college students.  An overwhelming majority of our students hold down jobs, and they have a hard time with the choice between a class assignment and a work shift.

I wonder whether the problem is that we do not make clear enough to students the value of the long-term investment in their education vs. the short-term investment in their (usually part-time) jobs.  I’m with Matt in the idea that our students, largely first-generation college-goers, can’t always picture what the value of a degree, perhaps especially a liberal arts degree, will be for them in future careers.  Not being able to imagine what they will be doing twenty years from now makes it tough for them to make a choice that ties them to twenty years of debt.

It’s different from a mortgage: you can picture yourself living in a house twenty years down the road, so it’s easy to commit to payments for twenty years.  But if you haven’t grown up in a culture that makes it crystal clear that investing in a college degree pays off for decades to come, then it’s difficult to quit even one of your part-time jobs in favor of spending more time on your work for classes.

The implications of this for those of us who work or aspire to work at teaching-intensive institutions are this: we must take responsibility for convincing our students of the value of investing in their educations.  That means we need to commit ourselves to working to keep our students in school, to getting them through their degrees so that they leave our institutions with a degree in hand and a better shot at the careers they want. It’s our job to make clear to students why what they are asked to do in college is important — not just in terms of workplace preparation but in terms of honing habits of mind, critical thinking, numeracy, digital skills, and reading and writing that they’ll use forever.

It’s not that I want them to take out more loans, any more than Matt Reed does.  It’s just that I want them to understand the trade-offs between working that extra part-time job and taking another year to finish the degree (or not finishing it at all). Both involve costs.  Let’s teach students to weigh them.


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