Don't Let Your Kids Grow Up To Be Debt Slaves

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by Barbara Frank Thriving in the 21st Century


Having finished up 25 years of homeschooling my four children, I often speak to homeschool support groups in order to encourage parents further behind on the homeschooling road. I’ve also written several homeschool-related books which I sell at these events. My youngest daughter, now 20, usually runs my book table so that I can answer questions after my speech. As she handles the transactions, she’s surrounded by parents new to homeschooling who want to meet a homeschooled young adult.

Many of these parents ask my daughter where she goes to college. She’s a tech school student majoring in criminal justice, and she also has a part-time job with a police department as well as an internship with the county sheriff’s department. But when she responds that she goes to a tech school, she’s almost always asked which college she plans to attend to earn her bachelor’s degree; her response that she doesn’t know if she’ll be going on to a four-year college generally elicits some form of disapproval from her questioners.

The fact is that many police departments don’t require their officers to have a bachelor’s degree, so once she graduates with her associate’s degree in criminal justice, she may be finished with her formal education. But most homeschooling parents don’t want to hear this; they want to believe that all homeschooled grads go on to earn college degrees.

This insistence on college degrees in the homeschool community may be rooted in the fact that when homeschooling first turned up on society’s radar, everyone’s main question seemed to be, “How will homeschooled kids do in college?” Since the answer turned out to be “Very well indeed,” college graduation has become many people’s preferred benchmark to prove that homeschooling works.

This push for college among homeschooling parents mirrors society-in-general’s push for college in intensity, if not in purpose. These days, most American kids are urged to go to college by their parents, their relatives, their schools, their communities and even their president, who said in his 2009 State of the Union speech:

“…we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

This is ironic, given that the U.S. government’s own Department of Labor predicts that the lion’s share of the jobs with the most openings from now until 2018 will not require a college degree. Considering the current state of our economy and the high unemployment rate in most states, why can’t these parents see that earning a college degree is no longer the golden ticket it was once considered to be? Yes, college grads still have a lower unemployment rate than the general working population, but it’s estimated that at least a third of them are working at jobs that don’t require a degree, and they have the skimpier paychecks to prove it.

Then there are all the students who didn’t make it through college. Nationally the average four-year college graduation rate is less than 50 percent (some colleges’ four-year graduation rates are in the single digits). That leaves an awful lot of students who borrowed money to go to college, didn’t graduate and still owe the money, whether or not they find a job in their degreeless condition.

In fact, the amount of student loan debt owed by college dropouts and grads is continually increasing. Total outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. more than quintupled over just the past 12 years: from $90 billion in 1999 to $550 billion in 2011. To make matters worse, the use of home equity loans to finance college educations (until the housing bubble burst and home prices plummeted) followed by the dramatic expansion of student loan programs caused the price of college to skyrocket, so that young people are going into more and more debt even as wages stagnate and sometimes decrease.

This explains why so many young people have become debt slaves, if they’re fortunate enough to find jobs that pay enough to cover their living expenses and their college loan payments. Some of these young people contemplate suicide when they realize that they’ll be spending their adult lives trying to pay back these loans, the balances of which often double or triple as late and missed payment fees accrue. Since these loans can no longer be discharged in bankruptcy court, these kids truly are looking at lifelong debt in many cases.

Is there hope? Most definitely! But parents must be willing to think outside of the box. One of my readers wrote to me recently, describing how her teen daughters took classes at their local community college to become LPNs (licensed practical nurses) as part of their homeschool high school studies. Now, at ages 17 and 18, they both have good-paying jobs that help them cover the costs of becoming RNs (registered nurses). Nursing jobs are one of the high-growth job areas predicted for the coming decade by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), so these young women are off to a good start, and with zero student loan debt.

Another young woman, also homeschooled, recently described how she obtained her bachelor’s degree in music at age 19 without accruing any student debt. What she did is not uncommon, but more parents with truly college-bound children (not all young people are college material) need to become aware of these opportunities instead of pressuring their kids to attending college because society says so, and then encouraging them to borrow the money in order to go. If they’re concerned about their children’s future, they can’t just assume that a college degree will guarantee their financial security as adults, because times have changed.

Reprinted with permission from Thriving in the 21st Century.

Barbara Frank’s [send her mail] latest book is Thriving in the 21st Century: Preparing Our Children for the New Economic Reality (Cardamom Publishers, 2011). Visit her website.

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