The Corner


A ‘Perpetual Undergraduate’ Reflects on the Student Loan Trap

Students walk past Princeton University’s Nassau Hall in Princeton, N.J. (Dominick Reuter/Reuters)

Talk in Washington about wiping out student loan balances for Americans who borrowed to go to college ought to appeal to someone like Megan Arnold, the author of today’s Martin Center article. 

In it, she describes in detail how her college decisions and financing played out over a span of years going back to 2008. She has been enrolled at several different colleges, public and private, and is still several credits short of her degree. Her family’s finances are in tatters and she owes Uncle Sam a bundle.

The root of her problem (and for many other young Americans) is the pressure to get a college degree, which is supposed to be the magic key that opens the door to prosperity. She writes, “Sometimes I think back to my freshman year of high school when the vocational/technical school gave a presentation to encourage students to sign up for vo-tech. I felt inspired by it and talked to my parents about their culinary program that night. The response I received wasn’t exactly ‘you’re too good to learn a skilled trade; you’re going to go to college,’ but that’s what I took away from it. The next year, I doubled up in science and honors classes and chose extracurriculars that would boost my college application.”

So college it would be. Enroll and start taking classes. Think about the matter of paying for it later.

Arnold would like to see more young people consider non-college pathways (mentioning the Mike Rowe program), but is insistent that we scrap the obsession with having college credentials as a job requirement. She correctly sees that employers have taken to using the college degree as a screening device for a great many jobs that most high school grads could easily learn.

She nails the truth, writing, “I do not want student loan forgiveness, at least not without the federal government exiting the student loan industry altogether, forever and ever, amen. But more than anything in terms of policy, I’d like to see more alternatives to college available to people leaving high school, and I’d like to see companies and organizations spend more time getting to know job candidates beyond the presence or absence of a degree on a resume.”

Too bad that the political class is only able to think about debt relief and not the underlying problem.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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