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Your major may explain your debt

Tess Vigeland: We've devoted a lot of time to student loans on this program and we'll continue to do so. But it's worth noting while some people are graduating from college owing hundreds of thousands of dollars, he average college grad leaves school with just $24,000 of debt. That's not chump change, of course. And the overall debt load is expected to cross one trillion dollars this coming week.

Commentator Peter Morici says part of the problem lies with employers and with schools.


Peter Morici: Young people face a cruel irony. Most can't land a decent job without a college education, yet many graduates earn too little to pay off student loans. College price tags have rocketed, but more importantly, costs have jumped higher than what many graduates earn over their working lifetimes.

Many never get out of debt. Americans over 60 still owe $36 billion. Social Security checks are garnished and debt collectors are harassing borrowers in their 80s.

Employers are partly to blame. In the 1950s and 60s, it was commonplace to find folks in jobs as diverse as newspaper reporters and insurance adjustors having only a high school diploma and some employer training.

Nowadays, employers often require a few years of college or even a B.A. It's an easy way to screen applicants, but many jobs simply don't pay enough for students to work down six-figure debts.

But what students do in college also matters. A degree in engineering or nursing pays a lot more than one in French or sociology. In recent decades, states have cut higher education during hard times but only partially restored budgets when conditions improve. Community colleges, which offer some of the best technical training, and many universities, have cut their programs in engineering, nursing and the like because they're too expensive. Meantime, many students are herded into the cheaper liberal arts.

Many college-bound students aren't prepared for and don't want to take the tough majors, but that problem goes back to high school.

Our culture is also to blame. Growing up in the New York state, I studied Iroquois culture, 20th-century child labor abuses and Governor Al Smith's reforms. And these days in college, students get a steady dose of liberal ideology and are sent out to go find themselves.

No surprise. Many come to universities only to enjoy intellectually pleasing but practically useless programs and end up lost in poorly paying jobs -- adrift in a sea of debt.


Vigeland: Peter Morici teaches at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business. We want to know what you think on our Facebook page or through our contact page.

About the author

Peter Morici is a macroeconomist and professor at R.H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park.
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The bigger problem is no matter what the degree is, having no brain. If I had a nickel for every person I know who has degrees in either medicine or engineering and can barely distinguish from left and right, I'd be a very wealthy man. A lot of these programs baby third-world minorities and women through. And many of them are dishonest cheaters who plagiarized whatever they could not figure out on their own.

Quote MartyS: ". It used to be that employers, having hired a promising candidate, taught that trainee the job, itself. Now employers expect the prospective employee to come pre-trained, with no investment required of the employer. Plug-and-play, so to speak."
Being the stero-typical semi recent business school grad who got a degree (for $18k w/o scholarships or grants) from Mr. Morici's employer allow me to respond. I can easily say it took my employer about a year and probably 1600 man hours from some expensive people before I was pulling my weight at the company. So much for plug and play.
Today's job are much more complicated than those of the previous century when high school (where you are correctly taught how to regurgitate a formula and plug in the correct variables) could give a person the building blocks for a career. High school graduation rates have consistently risen for the pass three decades but our economy is simply not producing the same jobs it was producing 30 years ago.

I made the mistake of getting a liberal arts degree & then going on to law school. Complete waste of money. I'm more than 100k in student loan debt & am employed as a temp document review attorney along with hundreds others in my building making $23/hr with no benefits & no health care. Had I gotten something actually useful in today's job market like a computer science degree prior to law school I wouldn't be adrift in student loan debt employed at a dead-end job with poor prospects of it changing it in the near future.

Derogatory (and shallow) statements like those of Mr. Morici about liberal arts education are nothing new. They've been around for decades that I'm personally aware of, and probably longer than that. We used to consider colleges and universities to be institutions for higher education, the purpose of which was to expose students to a variety of ideas as well as information and to teach them the skill of critical thinking. Now Mr. Morici and others of his ilk consider colleges to be nothing more than high-priced trade schools whose sole purpose is to churn out ready-to-use fodder for the business sector.

This segment got me thinking. It used to be that employers, having hired a promising candidate, taught that trainee the job, itself. Now employers expect the prospective employee to come pre-trained, with no investment required of the employer. Plug-and-play, so to speak. When did the employers in this country shed all responsibility for training and developing their workers? Why do they get a free lunch at the expense of individuals and the education system?

I'd like to see some data to support Mr. Morici's claims. How many community colleges in the country are abandoning engineering and nursing programs? None that I know of in my region. In fact, my university has recently established a seamless program with a Minnesota community college engineering program to facilitate easy transfer.

And where are the data to document his claim that students have been "herded" into the liberal arts? Why are students' choices spun as the result of some vast conspiracy to create a poorly paid underclass? What nefarious agenda would attempt to steer willing students away from lucrative fields. We scientists want to see the data--"show me the money."

Employers continually tell us they want critical thinking, writing, and communication skills in their employees. Engineering and other technical programs depend on the liberal arts to do the heavy lifting in providing those skills.

As well, the liberal arts departments cash flow the university and subsidize the technical fields with large classes taught by faculty whose salaries are usually significantly lower than those in the business or engineering schools. Where would Mr. Morici's salary be without the "service" courses that provide the FTEs to subsidize smaller class sizes in the technical fields?

Mounting student debt is to a large degree the result of cuts in government funding for higher education. At one time we believed that education was a public good, and an investment in it was what we do because we live in a society that promotes the public good. The idea that there is some plot to steer people into the liberal arts is a predictable ideological trope.

The College of St. Theresa in Winona, MN went under several years back and they had an excellent BS in Nursing program. I used to be employed there. Duke University closed its regular undergraduate BSN program due to cost. They have other nursing programs, but not the expensive BS program. University of Florida closed down its Family Practice MD Residency a few years ago thinking they would get more revenue from the specialists who do more procedures. I don't know where they think their referrals are coming from if they don't have loyal primary care pipeline to get referrals from. Engineering and nursing are very expensive to run due to the clinical labs where the teacher student ratios are much lower than English class. It is of concern to me and should be to others who want to get these jobs. My friends whose children are trying to get into nursing often have to wait a few years to even get into the programs.

I sent a letter into the contact us--this is the gist of it. Mr. Morici is ignorant of the vital role that a liberal arts education plays in training his own students in critical thinking, speaking, writing, reasoning, and analytical skills. If he were to pay attention to the problems we have in employment in this country, the dire state of students' writing and thinking skills when they emerge from closed-system business schools is one he would see. If he would get off his own ideological high horse he would realize his own salary is supported by the poorly paid work of liberal arts teachers who do all the heavy lifting in preparing his students for the job market.

In addition, the reason why higher education is so expensive these days is not because of salaries (I had my first pay rise in 3 years this year: 1.3%. Not exactly keeping up with inflation, is it?) but because of infrastructure, especially technology costs and maintenance of technology, not to mention fuel costs (a particular issue for residential colleges). Faculty salaries are lower in dollar-buying power than they were in the 1970s; technology costs are going through the roof because students expect super high speed wireless connectivity all through the campus and their parents expect far more luxurious surroundings than any of us had in our dorms 2 or 3 decades ago. So Mr. Morici is dead wrong. The problem is not with those of us hardworking liberal arts types. It is with ideologues like him who fail to understand what training young minds is all about.

It is not hard to pick out the college professors who are replying. They are the ones taking the issue personally. I think a dispassionate review might be more helpful.

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