Graduation hat on piggy and stack of coins money on white background, Saving money for education conceptOn the one hand, some courses are so full that extra sections have to be added and students are placed on waitlists. Colleges and universities offering those particular courses have to turn down more students than usual as they deal with increasing numbers of applications. On the other hand, small liberal arts colleges are forced to seek out financial partners to stay afloat or they must consider shutting down entirely.

Both situations stem from the same issue, being weighed by all students considering continuing their education. The question is no longer which college should I apply to? It is more often, is college worth the debt I am going to incur? And, to put it more specifically: Will I be able to pay down that debt once I graduate?

The $1.5 trillion problem

Student debt in America is more than $1.5 trillion, and is growing by tens of billions of dollars a year. 11% of that debt is either delinquent or in default, more than four times the delinquency rate for credit cards and residential mortgages.

More than half of student loan borrowers in a survey conducted by NerdWallet in 2017 said their education was not worth the debt they took on.

Experts say the world of higher education is still dealing with fallout from the economic downturn of a decade ago. The students entering college now watched older siblings or friends and neighbors graduate from college, moving back home unable to find jobs in their chosen field. As a result, today’s college applicants are flooding into overenrolled computer science courses in the hopes of guaranteeing themselves a job upon graduation. They believe a job in a field like computer science will help them pay down the debt they accrue in a way that jobs following graduation with a liberal arts degree might not.

What are colleges doing to help

If students were easily able to pay their student loan debts because they were in a well-paying job in the field that they studied, there wouldn’t be a problem. Colleges have zeroed in on that as an area where they can try to make a difference. Many schools are bolstering their career services offerings and working to make sure their curriculum is directly connected to the skills required for the jobs students are preparing for.
A recent Gallup poll offers insight into how students feel about their job prospects upon graduation: the more work-related experiences they have in school, the more optimism they have about graduating with the skills they need to be successful in the job market. The survey singled out mentors at school who push the students to pursue their goals and internships where students can put into practice what they are learning as examples of important college experiences that give students that optimistic feeling.

Rethinking the four-year undergraduate experience

Another way many colleges are helping is by having an open mind about what the future of higher education might look like…and in many cases already does look like for many older and lower-income students.

Stacking credits is becoming more and more common, either by design or just by happenstance. This is where students accumulate everything from traditional degree-based education to certificates, certifications, licenses, badges, and apprenticeships, among others, and build upon each to make themselves a more desirable candidate in the field they want to enter.

Some students have begun plotting out their higher education experience in this way, while others follow it a little later on after they enter the workforce. These students gather some certifications in their field that could lead towards advancement if they took some more classes, but less than if they had enrolled in graduate school.

More and more colleges are taking steps towards accepting these less traditional paths and by doing so, are making it easier on students who otherwise might not have been able to pursue a degree.

How analytics can help

There are a number of ways colleges and universities can dig into the data to help students manage debt. The simplest is to focus in on the students who need the most help – either financially or academically.

On the academic end, colleges are already collecting the data they could use to identify at-risk students, such as field of study, completed coursework, or whether or not students are using the supports offered to them, such as online textbooks or advisor meetings. The situation is similar to the one in Europe, where college is paid for by the government. If students in European schools stay longer than four years, it becomes a financial burden for the country. There the government is working with institutions to try to ensure that students aren’t taking too much time to graduate.

Similarly, colleges in the United States can work to combine their academic information with the financial information the government has. This way they can make sure they know which students are in danger of taking on more debt than is commensurate with the field they plan to enter post-graduation – or which students might be in danger of ending up with debt and no degree – and step in to intervene.

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John Sucich

John has more than a decade of experience in education as a teacher, board member, and communicator. He also spent several years in sports journalism. John graduated from Boston University with a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism and from Lesley University with a master's degree in elementary education.
John Sucich
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