Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Student debt and the value of an education

In the face of rising tuition costs, which have more than doubled since 1982, more and more students are attending colleges, with Millennials being considered "the best-educated generation in history." Despite the mounting cost and swelling debt, America’s demand for education, particularly higher education, has not decreased, defying typical market expectations.

This is what economists call inelastic demand, when people continue to buy a good or service regardless of an increase in prices. Though the post-recession job market is still difficult, growing student debt ought not to lead us to forget the dignity -- and responsibility -- of each individual student.

When prices for goods and services rise, consumers often make sacrifices and adjust their spending. For example, as gas prices rise, families use carpooling or more efficient routes to and from the grocery store. But what are students sacrificing when they join the immovable market for education? Are they considering less costly options with lower tuition, or do they unthinkingly take out student loans, falling into serious debt as they enter their twenties?

On the financial side, it is hard to ignore the escalating amount of student loan debt in this country: the total has swelled to over $1.2 trillion and is rising each year. While many have described this as a crisis, a recent report from the Brown Center on Education Policy at The Brookings Institution focuses on the still intact financial wellbeing of the individual, rather than the daunting debt. Brookings finds that “the average growth in lifetime income among households with student loan debt easily exceeds the average growth in debt.” This suggests that the income increase equips borrowers to compensate for the rise in debt, drawing a timeline for graduates and claiming that in just 2.4 years the average increase in household income compensates for the average increase in student loan debt. However, the article fails to account for the similar inflation of the cost of living.

 In an effort to posit today’s borrowers as financially sound and remove the term “crisis” from the conversation, the Brookings report fails to note that even with a college degree, graduates face a tough job market. Even if the rise in income could supply the means to handle the burden of debt, the question remains: Is the value of a diploma still enough to justify its attainment?

Looking to the differences in employment rates and incomes, the Pew Research Center upholds the substantial worth of a college education, drawing many similar conclusions as the Brookings study. Pew notes the advantage of a college education over a high school diploma, but stresses that while a degree does offer an added level of security, it is not an all-expense paid ticket to a career. Both the unemployment rates of those with a college degree and those with only a high school diploma have increased, having doubled and tripled respectively since 1965, currently averaging at 3.8 percent and at 12.2 percent. While a college graduate may enter the job force better prepared, in 2013 “the average unemployed college-educated Millennial had been looking for work for 27 weeks,” while those with a high school diploma take four weeks longer. Despite the advantage, those holding college degrees are still often ill-equipped to battle the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Americans are right to believe higher education is an important attainment for society, but it is not a necessary purchase for each and every member. With this, parents, educators, community leaders, clergy -- even politicians -- must reiterate that a student loan is an investment, not simply a degree. At the same time, students must acknowledge the economic and moral component of debt. Their moral duty as students, as learners, cannot be overlooked.

A high school senior should seriously consider whether to head to a college dormitory, to training in a craft or trade, or to a full time job after graduation. Confronted with a greater opportunity and the tempting effortlessness to attend college, students still owe extreme diligence to the decision process. In past generations, the widespread mentality towards college was that it was a privilege, one that came at considerable cost. While various things have made funds for college more readily available in the past fifty years, such as the Higher Education Act of 1965, the ability for those from middle income households to attend college was still a relatively new concept, leaving intact the due respect for higher education. The current ease of receiving an acceptance letter and the subsequent loan offer should not erase that mentality.

Many people still believe in the quality of both life and mind that an education represents, and when offered and received correctly, it meets this expectation. “The term ‘education,’” writes Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate,  “refers not only to classroom teaching and vocational training … but to the complete formation of the person.” It is this formation that drives Americans to continue to seek higher education, one unfazed by looming debt.

When an education is grounded in a proper view of human nature, a view rooted in human dignity, students are able to invest not only in their studies, but also in themselves. A college education must not merely be the means to a specific degree, but also the means to human flourishing. This does not diminish the responsibility of the university to provide a proper education for students before they embark on their careers. Rather it suggests a university achieves this best within a moral environment that promotes the integrity of each student. In the same way, a student is responsible for acting with integrity, whether it be through a consistent willingness to learn or the quality of his or her work.

If consistently done well, this would leave $1.2 trillion invested not in books or classrooms, but in people, who are thereby better equipped to promote a free and virtuous society. The market must accommodate, continuously providing an education that is worth the investment of both time and money. If pursued, a college degree must be more than a thoughtless decision to fall in line with the societal trend of higher education; it must be a personal choice to commit oneself to intellectual and spiritual growth.


Missouri governor vetoes teacher gun legislation

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed legislation Monday that would have allowed specially trained teachers to carry concealed guns, asserting that the move could jeopardize student safety in public schools.

The veto by the Democratic governor sets up a potential showdown with the Republican-led Legislature, which could override Nixon if it gets a two-thirds vote of both chambers during a September session.

Nixon announced the veto with a written statement on the deadline day for him to take action on bills passed earlier this year.

"Arming teachers will not make our schools safer," he said. "I have supported and will continue to support the use of duly authorized law enforcement officers employed as school resource officers, but I cannot condone putting firearms in the hands of educators who should be focused on teaching our kids."

The Missouri legislation called for allowing public school districts to designate certain teachers or administrators as "school protection officers," who would undergo special training to carry concealed weapons.

Supporters contend that armed school personnel could save students' lives by responding to an attacker without waiting precious minutes for police to arrive.

"I am disappointed this governor, who was all but absent during the process, has chosen to veto a bill designed to protect our children," said sponsor Will Kraus, R-Lee's Summit.

The Legislature began considering the measure after the deadly 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. At least nine states passed bills last year authorizing armed school personnel and more than a dozen introduced similar measures this year.

The Missouri legislation also lowered the minimum age required to get a concealed weapons permit to 19 from 21 and allows permit holders to carry guns openly, even in cities that ban open carry. In addition, health care professionals could not be required to ask whether a patient has access to guns, and public housing authorities could not ban tenants from possessing firearms.

The bill passed the Missouri House in May by a 111-28 vote, two more than would be required for a veto override. The Senate's 21-7 vote fell two votes shy of that threshold, but three Republicans were absent.

With another veto Monday of legislation that would have barred minors from buying electronic cigarettes while also restricting further regulation, Nixon has rejected 33 bills approved by lawmakers this year, the most in one year since he took office in 2009 and among the most ever by a Missouri governor in a 12-month span.


California Students Given Good Grades for Holocaust-Denial Essays

Earlier this year, eighth graders enrolled in the Rialto Unified School District in Rialto, California were assigned a rather questionable essay assignment: Did the Holocaust happen, or was it "merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth[?]" The district immediately apologized for the assignment once it came to light, and initially claimed that no students wrote that the Holocaust was a hoax. That allegation was wrong, as the San Bernadino County Sun newspaper discovered that over 50 students expressed doubt that the Holocaust happened in their essays, and were given high marks for their views.

    “I believe the event was fake, according to source 2 the event was exhaggerated,” one student wrote. (Students’ and teachers’ original spelling and grammar are retained throughout this story.) “I felt that was strong enogh evidence to persuade me the event was a hoax.”

    In some cases, students earned high marks and praise for arguing the Holocaust never occurred, with teachers praising their well-reasoned arguments:

    “you did well using the evidence to support your claim,” the above student’s teacher wrote on his assignment.

    The student received a grade of 23 points out of 30, with points marked off for not addressing counterclaims, capitalization and punctuation errors.

Students were given documents from and in addition to pieces of information from a Holocaust denial site. In one, the Diary of Anne Frank was presented as a hoax.

Administrators claim that the prompt was an exercise to improve critical thinking skills.

This is disturbing. There are plenty of ways to improve critical thinking and writing skills without having to wade in the territory of Holocaust denial. This assignment never should have been allowed in the first place. Teaching children conspiracy theories does nothing to help them educationally—and from the looks of the essays posted by the Sun, those students need all the help they can get.


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