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Off the Hill | University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire

Published: Thursday, February 20, 2014

Updated: Friday, February 21, 2014 17:02

A college education used to be a no-brainer if you wanted to succeed. It got you a solid profession, out of your parents’ home and into one of your own. 

Today, however, those who can afford the increasing tuition (first qualifying for federal loans) outperform their classmates and often land a job right after graduation. 

Forbes reported some alarming statistics: The national college student debt amounts to $1.2 trillion (surpassing the national credit card debt total), the average debt after college is $26,600 and one in 10 students rack up more than $40,000. 

The future is looking brighter in Tennessee, though, as Gov. Bill Haslam introduced a plan last week in his State of the State address, calling for two years of free schooling at community and technical colleges for any resident with a high school diploma. It would cost $34 million a year, paid for by diverting surplus revenue from the state lottery. 

I think Haslam’s proposal is a move in the right direction. Even though it’s a minor fix to an enormous problem, it would give people opportunities they otherwise couldn’t get, and could spark an emphasis on higher education nation-wide. 

Community colleges are an option for those who might not have the grades or money to attend four-year universities. A full year’s tuition and fees at a community college is $3,300 on average in the U.S., but tuition isn’t the only cost of college. 

Those outside of Tennessee who opt for the cheaper degree are still, on average, $7,000 in the red when all is said and done. This doesn’t account for opportunity cost either, meaning what students are potentially losing with their sizable investment in education. 

For example, someone attending college misses out on two years of income, so not only are they $7,000 in debt, but they’re also out an additional two years of income. Or if they depleted their savings account to pay for schooling, they’re also losing out on interest accumulated if that money just stayed in their account. 

In today’s competitive workforce, higher education is always preferred. 

Person A, who saves money and earns an associate degree, competing against Person B, who spent the extra money to earn a bachelor’s degree, is like Wile E. Coyote vs. the Roadrunner -- guess who’s getting the job?

Times are changing though.

A 2012 Harvard Graduate School of Education study reported the U.S. is expected to create 47 million new jobs by the end of 2018, and one third of them will require only an associate degree. 

An associate degree is a way to kill two birds, or maybe more, with one stone. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses make a median annual salary of $65,950. The field is expected to grow at a rate of 26 percent each year, demanding 120,000 new spots be filled. And the best part is it only requires an associate degree. 

Person A just got a great starting salary in a field begging for more employees, saved a boatload of money on school and loans, and did it two years before Person B, who is jobless, degree-less and steadily accumulating more debt. 

The student debt crisis has a ripple effect on the U.S. economy. If more states adopt something like the Gov. Haslam’s proposed plan, jobs will be filled faster. Americans can also pay off their student loans faster, and they’ll have money to stimulate the economy by buying houses and cars. 

This seems like a worthy public investment to me.

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