Why aren’t K-12 reformers more worried about the higher ed bubble?


by Michael Regnier

Since we’re here at Eduwonk and our host is a good sport, I’d like revisit a topic that Andy raised in his Time column back in May: the so-called “college bubble.” His takeaway:

Assuming you don’t pile up mountains of debt that constrain your career options (and that outcome is avoidable) or go to a school where just fogging a mirror is good enough to get a diploma, there are not a lot of downsides to going to college.

True enough. But as Glenn Reynolds points out, this “kind of assumes away the problem” since a low-debt, useful degree is precisely what too many college students are failing to obtain.

One would think that the chorus of concern about college value and consumer expectations would be unsettling to a movement that sets the audacious goal of college-readiness for many thousands of students from low-income families. Yet, except when it comes to for-profit colleges, I don’t hear much about this in education reform circles.

That’s not to say that “just go to college” is the operative slogan. More than ever, college prep schools and programs are monitoring college completion and building supports for college-enrolled alumni. They’re also on guard against pre-college mistakes such as failing to apply for financial aid, or choosing less-rigorous colleges than students are qualified for.

But those are still strategies to maximize college investment. They aren’t about mitigating risk, to educate and protect the investors. At minimum, first-generation college applicants from low-income families need to understand some basic truths:

–          A college that is poorly regarded will never tell you that.

–          The more expensive college is not always better, let alone the better value.

–          At a large state college, you may have to plan fastidiously to graduate on time (i.e. on budget).

–          Your choice of major matters a lot to your future earnings.

–          A student loan feels like free money, but it will follow you until you pay it, or you die.

And most importantly:

–          A college degree does not guarantee a job or a high-paying job, no matter how many times we told you about the extra million dollars.

I know there are schools, teachers, and counselors who add these messages to the college-prep conversation. Last week I sat in on a college-bound class at Renaissance Charter HS for Innovation, a four-year course where high school students—including those with a range of disabilities—explore a wide range of postsecondary options and analyze the tradeoffs.

As teacher Art Samuels told me, making college seem an immediate possibility (that requires immediate hard work) is vital throughout high school. But he also wants to prevent the poor financial choices he’s seen graduating seniors make at other charter schools. This is less of worry for students entering top-tier schools, which can often afford to give scholarships, than for those heading to commuter colleges, where a slight upgrade in reputation is not worth a six-figure debt.

The more a school invests in college-bound culture, the more of this kind of sophistication we need in the oldest grades. Yes, it’s wonderful to help students “climb the mountain to college.” We can’t let them tumble down the other side.

2 Replies to “Why aren’t K-12 reformers more worried about the higher ed bubble?”

  1. Wow what an informative article. I wish I had read an article like this as I was preparing for college. Growing up, I was under the impression that since I was a very smart kid I was supposed to go to the “best” college that I could, with no questions asked. Many role models in my life, both members of my family and adults at school, made it seem like the “best” colleges were the ones that were the most expensive. I am very glad I stuck with my first choice of college, which was SUNY (State University of New York-Public School) at Geneseo. I feel like I was very much prepared for teaching math at the high school level, and I am glad I do not have an overwhelming debt to pay. Unlike some of my colleagues and friends, I will not be carrying a student debt until the day I die.

    I graduated from high school in the class of 2004. I feel that the culture in high school, especially for the students with decent grades, was to go to the “best” college that you could get into. Many students reached for the stars, and reached into their pockets (which didn’t seem like real money at the time, at least until the student loan bill came six months after graduating, if graduation occurred that is). Many of my classmates went to colleges unsure of their major. They enjoyed their surroundings, but did not leave with a degree, or left with a degree that was difficult to find a job in. For those who could not find jobs, they attended grad school to further their education. For some that included law school or med school. For others, they just had time to kill before finding a real job. So many students are swimming in debt and will struggle to get their lives going due to the financial burdens.

    As a high school math teacher, I tell that kids that a four year college might not be the “best” option. It is important to know what you want to do with your life, and get the required education needed to succeed in what you want to do. I tell students to make sure they are focused in those studies, as well as to be focused on finding scholarships and bargains for a good education.

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