Finding Meaning

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Rethinking College

By Skip Hellewell

My siblings and I were the first of our family to graduate from college. I was a big believer in the importance of a college education and divided the world between those who earned college diplomas and the less fortunate who didn’t. I don’t see things that way anymore. It isn’t that I’ve changed, but rather that the colleges, at least many of them, have changed.

One change is the relative cost. The New Republic best explained this by noting that a 1979 student could pay for a year’s tuition by working 480 hours (based on minimum wage of $2.90/hour). You could do that with a summer job. Today it takes 2,229 hours to pay the average tuition, more than a year of work. That’s roughly a five-fold increase. The causes of this are complex and beyond this column, but we should note that the cost of college has far outrun the inflation index. And the colleges, including the dorms, seem much fancier than they were back in the day.

The government provided a solution to the cost of college based on their own addiction to borrowing. Loans to students started innocently enough in the Sputnik Era, to encourage science and engineering majors, but have grown ever since. Recent data from the Federal Reserve show that roughly 70 percent of students borrow to help with expenses, and those who borrow graduate with an average debt of nearly $30,000. That’s the average; some grads incur much higher debts. Polls show that over one-third think their education didn’t justify the debt—that it wasn’t worth it. What other business could survive that level of customer dissatisfaction? Perhaps it’s time for us consumers to rethink college.

The auto industry could be an example for colleges. Cars today are incredibly better than the cars of 50 years ago. Yet, in constant dollars, they’ve steadily gotten cheaper. Even better, they’re mostly made domestically with well-paid workers. From 1953 to 2019, car prices beat the inflation rate by -1.79% per year—an incredible achievement. By comparison, tuition rates have been rising by +2% per year over the inflation rate. Given the underused potential of new technologies such as Internet-based learning, the universities are looking more and more like today’s dinosaurs.

The average parent has a hard time covering the costs of living, let alone set money aside for college funds. What if children opened college saving accounts when they started school? One of our sons and his wife started this for their kids, offering to match their savings. Now the children are happy to take cash rather than presents at birthdays and Christmas. When older, the kids are encouraged to find part-time jobs and bank their income. As their accounts grow, they’ll learn about how to make their savings work for them. And when they choose a path to a college degree, they’re more likely to demand value as a key criterion.

Education is supposed to make you wiser, but is it wise to go into debt for education when it could be avoided? As noted above, over one-third belatedly thought it wasn’t. What if borrowing wasn’t the default option? What if our culture put more emphasis on preparing in advance? What if we demanded more value in education? Better said, what if we just got smarter about getting smart? There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected]

 

Places to worship (all on Sunday, unless noted):

Baha’i’s of Laguna Beach—contact [email protected] for events and meetings.

Calvary Chapel Seaside, 21540 Wesley Drive (Lang Park Community Center), 10:30 a.m.

Chabad Jewish Center, 30804 S. Coast Hwy, Fri. 6 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m., Sun. 8 a.m.

Church by the Sea, 468 Legion St., 9 & 10:45 a.m.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 682 Park Ave., 10 a.m.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, 635 High Dr., 10 a.m.

ISKCON (Hare Krishna), 285 Legion St., 5 p.m., with 6:45 feast.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, 20912 Laguna Canyon Rd., 1:00 p.m.

Laguna Beach Net-Works, 286 St. Ann’s Dr., 10 a.m.

Laguna Presbyterian, 415 Forest Ave., 8:30 & 10 a.m.

Neighborhood Congregational Church (UCC), 340 St. Ann’s Drive, 10 a.m.

United Methodist Church, 21632 Wesley, 10 a.m.

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