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‘A Relentless Drumbeat’ (Gwen Moritz Editor’s Note)

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A few weeks back, I wrote an article about the demographic changes that are already putting pressure on enrollment at private colleges in Arkansas. A trend story is less about any individual school than about factors affecting them all to some degree, so I interviewed the presidents of just three: Lyon College at Batesville, University of the Ozarks at Clarksville and my alma mater, Harding University at Searcy.

As I talked with Joey King, Rich Dunsworth and Bruce McLarty, I started to see a parallel between their line of work and my own. News and higher education are mature industries, and both had a fairly standard business plan that pretty much took care of itself. In the good old days, executives could concentrate on the quality of the product, which would attract customers, who would pay for the enterprise. There were always executive decisions to be made — hiring, pricing, capital investments — but they didn’t face existential threats completely outside their control, and the pool of likely customers continued to grow.

Until it didn’t. Newspapers reached that point a couple of decades ago; colleges and universities are, in Dunsworth’s words, “looking at flat enrollment for the next four or five years and then something of a cliff.” Not only are Americans in general having fewer babies, but college-educated adults — the ones most likely to produce college-going children — are having the fewest babies.

The parallels aren’t perfect. News consumers can subscribe to multiple publications at the same time, and the cost to readers has increased but is still not prohibitive for most people. Students, on the other hand, rarely enroll in more than one college at a time, and the cost has become a genuine impediment.

I’m not here to debate whether higher education is worth the money. That’s like arguing whether a car is worth the money. There is no one right answer. If you need a car in order to make a living, then the right vehicle is worth some amount of money, even if you have to borrow the money and pay it back over time. Same for higher education.

But the cost of a college degree has inflated so much more than wages — and faster at public universities than at private. My article didn’t delve deeply into costs, but it is a factor that looms large in any discussion of higher education. Harding President McLarty described “a relentless drumbeat about the exorbitant debt that people are going into and questioning the return on investment.”

College was historically seen as a desirable thing for any young adult with the interest and ability. But now, McLarty told me, “We’re having to defend the value of getting a college education, and we’re having to defend the value of being a broadly read and educated person.”

Forty years ago, when I was a freshman at Harding, my middle-class parents could tighten their belts and pay my tuition, room and board out of their income and household savings. To do that today is almost impossible even for upper-middle-class families and even with kids in state-subsidized schools. My husband and I set money aside every month for 20 years in order for our two sons to go to Arkansas state schools debt-free, but most families can’t do that — and many families that could just don’t make it a priority.

As of March 31, Americans owed $1.5 trillion in student loans, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and 34% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 are burdened with some student debt. Millions of Americans have student loan debt without having finished a degree, a prospect that makes my stomach hurt. That kind of debt generally cannot be discharged even in bankruptcy.

Plus, even a college degree doesn’t guarantee adequate income to repay student loans. My colleague Mark Friedman spotted a heartbreaking case when he was prowling through bankruptcy filings. A Fayetteville woman — her name doesn’t matter — is trying to get relief from her student loans, which date back to the late 80s.

After she finished her master’s degree in 2000, she owed about $23,500 at an annual interest rate of 9%. Over the past 19 years, through a series of personal and professional setbacks that have left her with little current income, she has paid more than $38,000 on that debt and the balance is now $37,700.

I wish I knew the right answer. As H.L. Mencken recognized a century ago, “[T]here is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” Earlier this month, The Atlantic published an excerpt from a new book by Paul Tough, “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.” The article systematically deconstructs a popular myth that welders are in such demand that they can earn $150,000. The average is a bit over $40,000.

Tough’s case study is a young father from North Carolina who couldn’t finish an associate’s degree in welding because he couldn’t pass the English requirement — and had $19,000 in student loans.

Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.
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