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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I thought Peter Morici was going to talk about credential inflation and I was disappointed he did not. The core problem is not the lack of college degrees but rather the unnecessary demand for them. As he points out at one time a high school diploma was an acceptable credential; now it is inadequate and it is not because more education is needed to do the job. It is because more education is required to GET the job.

I found Mr. Morici's comments to be all too typical of B school mentality. A Liberal Arts education is meant to BROADEN ones perspective and engender creativity and curiosity about the world. It has been obvious to me that B school graduates are sadly lacking in any of these skills. My experience has been that they put profit above product, people and most certainly, ethics. They arrive ready to "manage", but lack any knowledge of the work that has to be done, have very little curiosity about HOW the work gets done, and absolutely no respect for the people who actually DO the work. A college degree is not the best route to learning some jobs. On that I agree with Mr. Morici. Starting at the bottom and working one's way up is the best way to train, and discover leaders. Assuredly, our secondary schools are failing to prepare our children for the idea that hard work is required, and that clarity of thought, logic and clear communication is a basic skill that is required in any endeavor. As long as the B schools keep producing the kind of graduates that I have encountered in business, this country will not innovate, will not compete in the world marketplace, and will waste the precious resources of some smart people who may not have a degree, but know how to get the job done.

In straight economic terms, Mr. Morici may be right that some majors pay back better than others. But I think it's short-sighted to view money as the primary goal of higher education. Today I see so many young people coming out of business schools and other trade schools. They consider themselves "college educated," but in the workplace, you can tell who they are. They have certain skills, yes; but they lack fluency in the language, flexibility of mind, and general background knowledge that would make them better able to adapt to new and changing situations...and they are boring to talk to over the lunch table.


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