There has been a lot of media attention focused on the growing debt load of college students, increasingly so after the cumulative U.S. student loan debt reached the $1 trillion mark earlier this year. With rising costs of a college education outpacing increases in median household income, Iowa families have turned to student loans, both federal and private, as a means to cover college costs. This has caused some to question whether the value of a college degree is worth the cost of attaining it.
Though it is true that college costs consume a larger percentage of household income than they did just 10 years ago, it is important to be aware of Iowa’s employment outlook before writing off the need for a college degree. Nearly two-thirds of the top 50 fastest growing occupations require some type of formal training program or postsecondary education. Iowa Workforce Development has published a list of Iowa’s Hot 50 Jobs with both high demand and high salaries. Of those listed, 98 percent require postsecondary education. Increasing educational attainment in the state is necessary as the number of jobs that will require postsecondary education is expected to experience higher rates of growth through 2018 than other fields.
The recession has been tough on college graduates, but they have suffered far less than workers who do not possess education or training beyond high school. As educational attainment increases, income also increases and the percentage of the population living in poverty decreases. In Iowa, the poverty rate for the population age 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree is 3.1 percent compared with 20.3 percent for those with less than a high school education. In addition, unemployment disproportionately affects those with lower levels of education. So yes, a college education is important, but not without regard to cost.
Though the media have focused much of their attention on the impact of rising college costs and lack of growth in need-based financial assistance, they have failed to mention another important contributing factor in the student debt issue. It is true that Iowa’s median income has not kept pace with increasing costs at Iowa colleges and universities; however, I believe the high debt load is also contributed to by a willingness of students and their parents to borrow at all costs without regard to the future implications.
All too often, I talk to parents of students who have already accepted admission to a college without having any idea how they will pay for the amount not covered by financial aid. Parents are often leery of borrowing federal PLUS loans in their names, so they have their students borrow heavily in private education loans without considering what type of monthly payment they will face upon graduation.
In the current economy, in which families have been unable to save anything for college and students are facing a tough job market, it has become increasingly important to align college choice with cost and career potential. To keep from joining the ranks of debt-ridden college graduates, it is important to select a college where the loan debt can be kept at a reasonable level relative to the student’s future income potential. In some cases, that might mean having to say no to a top college choice. In the long run, it is not always in the student’s best financial interest to follow his or her heart. Though students will be spending years at college, they will be spending even more years paying back student loans, so it is important to factor in affordability during the college section process.
Heather Doe is the associate director of marketing and communications at Iowa College Aid