Opinion

MEREDITH WARREN

Signing a college loan shouldn’t be a high school rite of passage

Higher education conceptual image with graduation cap and tassel on american currency. Macro with extremely shallow dof.; Shutterstock ID 44454148; PO: OPED
Shutterstock / Marie C Fields

The story of an unemployed dad from Duxbury made headlines recently when a court ruled he should not have to repay nearly a quarter of a million dollars in student loans he carried on behalf of his kids after he declared bankruptcy.

In most cases, taking out enormous loans with no solid means to pay them back would elicit the question, “What on earth was he thinking?”

But many high school graduates and their families know exactly what he was thinking.

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The traditional American mindset has always been — and still is — that a college degree is the ticket to a desirable middle-class lifestyle. According to a recent Gallup poll, 70 percent of Americans still feel that getting a postsecondary education is important.

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So students and their parents are going broke to make it happen. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Americans are currently carrying a staggering $1.2 trillion of college loan debt.

Just like the slews of Americans who overextended themselves to enter the housing market 10 years ago, high school seniors and their parents are taking on piles of debt on the speculation that they will be able to make the payments on it down the road. But it often doesn’t work out that way — one in four student loan borrowers are currently in default or struggling to stay current on their loans.

That’s a lot of credit scores at risk. And that’s a lot of lives being put on hold as those who are struggling to make payments are putting off buying a home, starting a family, and otherwise contributing to the economy. That’s bad for individual borrowers and for society as a whole.

Politicians talk about making college loans easier to get by lowering interest rates and allowing borrowers to refinance. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders wants to make it free to attend public colleges and universities by transferring the bill to taxpayers.

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But all these ideas still rely on the idea that a traditional four-year college degree is the Holy Grail for achieving success.

We need to empower young people by presenting options for life after high school — options that don’t include strapping themselves with the albatross of massive debt. And, we need to do it before we send high school juniors or seniors on college tours.

Students need to understand how college loans could become part of their lives for decades after graduation. Making huge monthly payments could prevent them from moving out of their parents’ home, buying a car, or starting a family.

They need to know that attending technical school and learning a trade is a valid and acceptable course — and a way toward solid financial footing, without the burden of college debt.

If attending college is their choice, they need to know how to get there more affordably.

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Perhaps that means starting off at community college. Under Governor Charlie Baker’s new Commonwealth Commitment initiative, qualified students who start at a community college will get a 10 percent discount on fees when they transfer to a state university. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh just introduced a plan for high school graduates in his city to attend local community colleges tuition-free.

Or perhaps students should consider attending college part time so they can work and earn money while getting an education.

Instead of enabling and encouraging students to pile on loans that will hamstring their lives for years to come, we need to let them know they have a choice. Signing on the dotted line of a loan application should not be a high school graduation rite of passage.

Meredith Warren is a Republican political analyst and consultant.