COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

Is a college degree affordable?

The largest for-profit vocational college group shut down last month as a result of investigations for criminal fraud.

Corinthian Colleges, based in Santa Ana, had been under pressure from regulatory authorities for their recruiting practices that promised government loans to support their studies for job training. These assurances were not always fulfilled, especially in qualifications for getting jobs and the amount the college claimed the graduates could earn.

Before the shutdown in other states under the names of different college groups, Corinthian had 72,000 enrolled students. When the college closed last month, there were 16,000 students stranded in midterm education. This is the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. higher education

More recently two more private colleges — Career Education Corp. and Education Management Corp. — faced the same problems as Corinthian Colleges. All three groups enrolled more than 300,000 students at their peak six years go.

These schools were originally successful because of students’ difficulties qualifying for traditional college or university education. Efforts have been made for online study to reduce the cost of a degree. Yet most ambitious students prefer to attend the best college they can meet the entranace qualifications or be able to afford the tuition.

The Economist ran a cover story that questioned the high cost of a university degree. Other studies show that an expensive college education is often not a good investment for an average student. Of course, that degree is a necessity for certain professional and academic employment, but not every college student is headed in that direction.

May 1 is the standard deadline for high school graduates to select the college they’ll attend from among the ones that have accepted them. It is usually a stressful time for the student and especially for the parents who face the financial burden of putting their child through four years or more of an expensive program.

The case for investing in higher education has received considerable publicity during the past year. In most European countries, the state pays from 80 to 100 percent of tuition. The United States uses mixed funding of grants and student loans, which is a burden to the family. Typically, the parents invade their retirement reserves while the student ends up with an additional debt burden.

The Washington Post predicts that student debt will become a campaign issue. Outstanding student loans totaling $1.3 trillion might just drive young adults to the polls.

With the demise of the for-profit colleges, there is a limited choice for students seeking a vocational education. In Europe, especially Germany, vocational training is considered an important element of education for those students who do not aspire to advanced degrees.

United States community colleges offer two-year programs that basically train someone for a practical job. Entrance requirements are not as strict and the cost is considerably less than most universities.

As an alternative to government subsidies for college education and the high level of past-due student loan debt, President Barack Obama suggested in his State of the Union address this year that tuition-free admissions would be less of a burden to taxpayers. That would require a huge investment in expanding community colleges that are already overrun with students who can’t afford the for-profit colleges or the top universities.

I have always been an advocate of a person getting out into the real world to develop their skills in whatever career they choose. However, most jobs with a lucrative future require some skilled training or education to be qualified or to be licensed.

Some level of training is necessary to get something better than a minimum-wage job. Does that always mean a degree from a university with the burden of student-loan debt?

There are always exceptions, such as McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc and Apple founder Steve Jobs, who had virtually no advanced education and just went to work, but these people are few and far between.


Ford is a freelance writer in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com.

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