What is your education worth? You might think about your dream job, that nice piece of paper you can hang in your office, or the campus amenities that make you feel at home. Or maybe that question serves as an unwelcome reminder of your college’s sticker price and the hole of debt you’re digging to pay it. You certainly wouldn’t be alone. Despite debt being a common denominator in many students’ college experiences, candid discussions about it are far less common.
Bucking this trend, members of the Free the Facts Book Club joined Senior Policy Advisor Tom Church last week to discuss the rhetoric and reality of student debt. In the space of an hour, topics of conversation ranged from debt forgiveness to the CARES Act and Europe’s university pricing system.
To countless students, college debt is a monster that they’ve invited to hide under their bed for ten years. As someone with a habit of playing hide-and-seek with her bank account balance, it was comforting (yet concerning) to see many of the other Book Club members admit to not regularly checking their debt balances. These members ranged from current students to recent grads and professionals. Each person came with a different perspective on how debt had influenced their decisions about college. But more concerningly, everyone also had a story to share about the lack of available financial advice.
At just 18, many people embark on the biggest, most expensive adventure of their life: college. But when it comes to financing this adventure, not all options are created equal. In the words of Tom Church:
“the student loan market is a market of imperfect information.”
Some students have guidance counselors that are well-versed in scholarships, loans, and financial aid. Others have no family experience, savings, or school resources to help them navigate the process. No matter which group they fall into, students face an uphill battle to uncover the cost of college and how much their degree will earn them in the future. Whether it's provided by a non-profit like Free the Facts, the federal government, private entities, or universities themselves, the supply of reliable financial information is definitely not meeting its demand.
That information gap becomes even more frightening amidst COVID-19, when many students are experiencing a jarring shift to online classes. With no subsequent tuition cuts in sight, many participants questioned the value of taking on debt for a college degree. But Church managed to inject some optimism into the discussion of COVID-19’s impacts - in a time full of unprecedented and sudden change, he suggested that the crisis could push forward much-needed student loan reform policies.
“All politics is local” was the call-to-action that ended the Book Club meeting. Student loan debt and the lack of financial transparency are not just federal-level problems. Every college student has a vested interest in their college doing better and has some power to push it to become part of the solution. As college resumes in fall, be it online or in-person, consider asking yourself three questions. What did you know about the cost of college before you applied? What do you wish you’d known? And, finally, what should your college be doing to bridge that information gap?