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Yes, that is a lot of money…

by Tod Massa 13. September 2013 22:21

Yes, that is a lot of money…

In this last around of review of the graduate debt data, a question was raised.  “Can you provide data used to present this information?  I assume the SCHEV_FA data is the source, but the loan debt at ${large number over 150k} (maximum) for an art major seems extreme to me. “

Speaking as someone with a degree in studio art, I agree. This is extreme. However, we checked and the data are correct. What they reflect is a student that enrolled for five years, borrowed the maximum of Stafford loans each year, had minimal grant support, and the remainder (and bulk) of the borrowing came from private loans. In reviewing the records, it seems pretty clear that this was the only way this student was going to afford college at this time in their life.

But is it too much?

The truth is that a residential college experience costs money and it has to be paid for. What makes college affordable for most students is the participation of other payers in the system. These other payers include the student’s family, the tax-paying citizens of the state, federal tax-payers to support grant-aid programs and loan subsidies, and people who make  private gifts to endowments or scholarships, and the students/families who pay the full freight of college with part of what they pay going to subsidize other students through institutional grant aid. 

This student had very little third-payer support and thus borrowed just about the full amount of a five-year cost of attendance.

While it is easy to be concerned or even outraged about this level of debt, it pretty well reflects a legitimate cost of the degree. It is about the same cost that the student of a wealthy family, or family able to save and invest for college (not all can do so), would have paid for a student taking five years on a residential campus. 

We simply are not used to seeing that cost in a single bill.

The very good news in this story is that we are talking about a graduate. We are not talking about a drop-out. Further, as long as one does not expect to be employed as an artist, I think an art degree is an incredibly useful degree. Perhaps the most useful of the Liberal Arts degrees as the process of creating art is largely about problem-solving.  “How to show the way the light hits this drop of water?”  “How do I convey this message?” Others will have different views and/or experiences, but unless they are artists themselves they probably won’t understand. Of course, in my case it helped to have a couple years of serious math and science to add to the mix.

My real point is that I am not convinced that this is amount of debt is, by itself, a bad thing. I do expect this graduate is wishing they had a much smaller amount of debt right now, but then again, they may be doing pretty well. I just don’t know.

I think the bigger problem is not the debt, but what our reaction to debt like this tells us about our understanding of how much a college degree costs. And who pays. After all, when we criticize a student for borrowing too much or an institution for allowing that to occur isn’t the implication that the student and institution did not perform enough due diligence to get someone else to pay?

Of course, and this is my final point, we have come to this because we seem to have lost the degree to which value higher education as a public good. Most of us still see it as a public good, but we also recognize it as  private good and thus the struggle about to what degree we fund it.



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