Is higher education a right?

Earlier this week it happened. Officially. American's student debt burden passed the one TRILLION dollar mark, according to FinAid.org -- which has a clock running on the site. The average student graduates college with $24,000 in loans. But for many of them, that's just a drop in the bucket.

College costs are rising 8-10 percent a year. Graduates are facing an economy with 8 percent unemployment. Employers are demanding college degrees as a bare minimum. This issue is even gaining traction in the presidential campaign. So we had a conversation with Robert Reich -- former labor secretary, current Berkeley professor and author of "Beyond Outrage" -- and Neal McCluskey, associate director of Cato's Center for Educational Freedom.

The conversation between the two guests revealed it's not a simple matter of "yes" or "no" to government student aid. Take a listen to the full half-hour interview we had with Reich and McCluskey to hear their takes on the "right" to higher education, what caused college to become so expensive and potential solutions to the financial aid system.

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.
Log in to post15 Comments


"The average student graduates college with $24,000 in loans."

There is *average* and then there is *median* - as in, "Bill Gates walks into a bar and suddenly the *average* personal wealth of each person in the room is $15 billion."

According to some articles I have read, the median debt for students is less than $12,500 (one of these is Derek Thompson's "The Student Debt Crisis We Don't Talk About" in The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/print/2012/05/the-student-debt-crisi...)

This was a very insightful discussion. I appreciate listening to it. As a community college counselor, I witness first hand the challenges students have in deciding what to major in to pursue their dreams and yet ensure a monetary future benefit to sustain themselves and family.

It's time that colleges and universities with multi-billion dollar endowments used some (more) of that money to fund student loans. What better evidence would there be that they had faith in what they were doing? Some colleges' endowments are so huge that it's hard to justify charging students anything to go there.

Boards of trustees have come to measure their success by how much they grow the endowments, not by how well they deliver education to their students. Time for a change!

Now, being an old man, I can see that I have left my children and grandchildren a mess. I went to college in the early 60's as a Technical Theater major and I have enjoyed doing theater all my life...but not for a living. Over the years I have added another BA in Anthropology and an MA in Archaeology. But it was only the last few years of my working life that I got a job because of my degree...and only then because I had the degree AND highly technical specialized knowledge AND 8 years as a Manager for the USAF AND had a killer GPA AND knew how to apply for the job AND sell myself.

As a country we are wasting our best resource; our young people. Everyone should be educated as far as they can, and want, to go. With the costs today, only the wealthy can afford college, and we are creating a two tier culture with no way out for the bottom tier. This, along with no health care, will bite us in the ass in a short time. It is short term financial thinking overriding long term planning based on historical record. If we want to be booming in 10 years we have to educate our population and give them good health care NOW. That way, in 10 years we will have a healthy educated workforce. We have to think ahead and see what we do best ....then do it better than anyone else. We can not compete on wages, but we can compete on other fronts...profitable ones for ALL concerned not just the top 10%.

So, I still advocate getting as much education as you can because it is a tight market the ones with the best tool set gets the job. Someone who has a skill will go just so far, but someone with a skill, PLUS quality education, Plus job experience will go much farther. Don't expect to graduate and get a good job the next day. Go out and get the best education you can, get an entry level job and work smart....more doors will open up to you.

I've been following the tuition debate here on Marketplace for several weeks now but I've heard no mention of cooperative education programs. As a product of a 5 year program, I was able to obtain a bachelor's degree, 2 years of relevant work experience and no tuition debt. I realize that there is not a large number of colleges and universities that offer co-op programs but they do exist. While it likely won't cover all the costs of tuition, it will certainly help, and the value of the work experience is worth even more. By exposing yourself to the workplace during your education, at the very least you'll find out what particular types of work you may or may not enjoy doing. At best, you may go directly back to one of your work-term employers to begin a career that you already know you're going to love.

It was unfortunate that Marketplace Money chose to cover the serious topic of financing a college education by giving us two ideologs on either end of the political spectrum. As a result we, the listeners, got little useful information. If instead we had heard from someone with practical knowledge on the problem we would have heard that like all major events in personal finance, paying for college takes planning. The problem is that most Americans arrive at college with no plan; as a result they take the Financial Aid Office’s default plan – taking on debt. This space does not provide the room to cover all the things that can be done to avoid huge debt loads in paying for college. Nevertheless,planning includes leveraging 529 savings, maximizing scholarships, planning low cost alternatives to covering required courses, taking advantage of debt forgiveness programs, understanding value for dollar in choosing the college attended, etc. The Financial Aid Office should be the last place that a student goes to in order to pay for college. Hopefully Marketplace Money will return to this topic, but with a knowable practitioner who can open people’s eyes as to how they can plan to pay for college while avoiding huge debt loads.

Concerning student loans and higher education: In reality student loans are tantamount to loan sharking. Our kids are told over and over you have to go to college, (hopefully some hear trade school in that conversation) and they do. They also barrow twenty five thousand dollars and more to do it. The problem is they are now strapped with debt that can’t be paid off early such as a car or house loan; that is without continuing interest payments. That’s wrong by any standard. Student loans are generally easy to get and very hard to deal with. They are offered at a time that is both emotional and pressure driven by our society. Student loans should be offered at very low or no interest and students should have to show that they are academically cable of going to college or trade school and show they are serious once in school by maintaining a reasonable grade average. For students who can’t show that they are academically capable of higher education our post-secondary system should be preparing them for the work force. Not minimum wage jobs put jobs that require an understanding of math and language along with computer skills. Like we received in the 50’s and 60’s. (Exception computer skills). Of course it would be nice to have a well-paying job to go to

In this story, Mr. McCluskey used completion rate data as an indication of whether a student has the intellectual ability to complete a college degree. As evidence, he notes that 80% of full-time students at community college do not complete their degree in three years, and 40% of full-time students do not complete a 4-year degree in six years. One cannot use completion rate statistics to infer students are not completing their degree programs. The "non-completing students" listed above reflect one of three different realities.

1. They transfer to other institutions to complete their degrees. Even when they complete their degrees in 3 (or 6 years), they are counted as not completing at their original school. Schools furthermore have no way to track whether they complete their degrees later on, as this would violate privacy laws.

2. They move back and forth from the workforce and higher eduction, stretching out the amount of time it takes to complete a degree. This is a common strategy for students who avoid student loan financing.

3. They drop out temporarily or permanently due to lack of interest, lack of academic ability or focus, health or family emergencies, starting families, or opportunities in the workforce.

Completion rate data should not be used to to measure student or institutional success, because it has no bearing on whether there is "massive over-consumption" (in Mr. McCluskey's words) of higher education taking place.

It seems that one has to look at several aspects of a given student's life. First, how much support does the student have from the immediate family. Given, that the student is solidly supported by a 'family' network, then the student needs to 1) evaluate the education costs including cost of student loan and the repayment schedule. 2) the availability of employment for the student at the end of the educational course.

If either of the above conditions are not fulfilled, then the student is practically ineligible for higher education. Or he may have to settle for a lower level of education.
Therefore, higher education can be considered a right only as much as healthcare is considered a right. For example, in the current Healthcare system, Medicaid is the choice of last resort when providing healthcare. Similar parameters must be considered for higher education. It could be that a student who does not qualify financially, for a "four-year college" education, must be given an alternative lower-cost path that would lead to employment (full or part-time). For the part-time-employed people, there must be some financial aid (i.e. grant) that helps them complete the needed education to get full-time employment.

Play it backwards: higher education is a huge industry that needs students. Why would one go to college to get a trombone degree? To TEACH trombone, not to play it. Good job, benefits, no staying up until midnight in smoky bars....
These macro-focused stories always miss the much larger world of work, and how things work, and how one learns what to learn. You came to work in a car, on a road, a paved road. Behind that road is an engineer, a maintenance director, a chemist who have college degrees. None of them know how to even turn on the paving machine, or how to adjust it for depth/width/mix/speed, or where you can take a piss once you get to work. Somebody has to fix the darn thing, and he might have a tech degree but nobody cares, it just really needs to work again. That mechanic might read Chaucer or might prefer Lucheros; heck, maybe she has a degree in French. But there is work to do.

All the advice to students, all the financial aid people, all the coaches and teachers work for the education industry. It's good for them. They didn't ever leave, to find out how roads happen....


With Generous Support From...