Tuition debt is killing students’ curiosity
Want a university education? That’s fine, as long as you don’t mind clocking up a debt totaling tens of thousands of dollars that will follow you around for decades.
Except, of course, it doesn’t have to follow you around for the rest of your life. Not if you pay back your loans quickly, and get yourself a high-paying job as soon as you graduate.
This reality has an interesting knock-on affect. It could reasonably be said that the desire to become debt-free makes courses that offer a direct route to employment considerably more attractive than those that do not.
Why study art history when you can study engineering? Why spend years seeking to understand the nuances of the Franco-Prussian War when you could get yourself a degree in accounting?
When such a huge part of a young person’s choice about whether or not to attend university is about affordability, is it any surprise that the whole process can become a financial decision rather than one based on personal preference?
The rhetoric from those in high office doesn’t help. The UK government has just published its plans for higher education in a White Paper called Success As a Knowledge Based Economy.
As Times Higher Education’s editor, John Gill, points out here, the title of the paper makes one thing very clear: universities are being told that they must embrace their role as drivers of economic progress.
The government is stressing the importance of “high-level graduate skills” and demand for a “more highly skilled workplace”. Demand for graduates is no doubt a plus for universities, but there is a lingering concern, Gill says, that the focus on economic value is too overbearing.
In the U.S., you don’t have to look too far to find similar opinions. You wouldn’t expect anything less from presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, but his adviser, Sam Clovis, has indicated that higher education is valued – provided it is focused on employability.
“If you are going to study 16th-century French art, more power to you. I support the arts,” Clovis said. “But you are not going to get a job.”
He believes that a college should factor that in when deciding on a student’s loan eligibility, and the requirement that colleges share the risk would be a powerful incentive to do so.
“If you get into the esoteric aspects of a particular art field, you have to know that those are the circumstances,” he said.
On the other side of the house, president Barack Obama is still encouraging more states and communities to continue expanding tuition-free community college and Hilary Clinton, favourite to be the Democrats presidential candidate, is running on a ticket of “debt-free” college, with the cost of attending dependent on personal circumstance.
The Democrats too, however, consistently refer to higher education within the context of higher salaries. “On average, people with four-year degrees earn over half a million dollars more over their careers than people with high school degrees,” Clinton said when unveiling her tuition fee proposals.
For this #StudentDebt series, I wanted to use my article to look at what this “crisis” means for education in its purest form: a desire for knowledge, and a love of learning.
It might sound idealistic, but does our focus on the economic impact of attending university mean that we make our school-leavers think too much about what they ought to learn, and not enough about what they actually want to learn?
Education of course has a role to play in ensuring that there are enough capable graduates to fill the skills gaps in our economies. It is vital to plugging skills gaps in our economies and producing the right candidates for the most in-demand jobs.
But by focusing too strongly on these functions of education, are we making “learning for learning’s sake” the preserve of the rich? Are we saying that studying that which interests us – the things that tweak our curiosity and genuinely excite us – is only an option if it happens to be in a lucrative field?
A desire for knowledge is a wonderful thing. It would be a shame if government policy and financial pragmatism prevented some of our brightest and best from enrolling in university to follow their dreams, rather than simply to line their pockets.
I would urge the new president, whoever it is, to keep this in mind when implementing higher education reform.
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