For prior generations, earning a bachelor’s degree was seen as an opportunity to obtain financial stability and break cycles of poverty. As the national student loan debt rises beyond $1.5 trillion, Americans are starting to question if college could have the opposite effect.
Here’s what local educators have to say about the cost of college.
Then and now
Todd DeLey grew up in Anderson, Indiana in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Although his parents didn’t attend college, he felt his options would be limited without an advanced degree.
“My parents and grandparents walked right out of high school, worked at General Motors, had a great life, raised families, raised me with no college,” said DeLey. “There was not an option for me, without an education, to walk into a mid-level or high paying job.”
DeLey earned his master’s degree from Ball State University. He is the supervisor of Community & Continuing Education for Washington Township schools. Within that role, he helps adults reach educational goals ranging from learning English as a second language to getting certified in a trade.
He says students graduating today have more options than he did, and that many of those options do not require a college degree.
“I see skill jobs opening up where you can make a lot of money. I’m all about college. My son is at Butler, I’m an educator, but we have a workforce we need to stimulate that doesn’t necessarily take an associate’s or bachelor’s degree,” said DeLey. “We had a kid who hadn’t had a job in a year. He got the (welding) certification, been working eight months and is making $55,000 a year, has a 401(k), medical, and dental.”
Local students have ample opportunities to explore their options. For example, the J. Everett Light Career Center allows high school students to earn certifications and explore various fields of study. Many classes offer dual credits towards degrees at Ivy Tech and Vincennes University.
“I watch my words closely because I would never tell a young person you don’t need to be educated, or that you don’t need to go to college,” said DeLey. “When you get a degree, they can never take that from you. It gives value, but there are other things you can do that give value as well. I struggle with the cost. I think that’s the next thing that will hit this country like the housing market hit in 2008. The cost of college is crazy. How do you justify it? Even dual parents who make a good income can’t send two kids to college. If they did, the parents would not be able to retire. We are living in that world. I think it’s starting to sink in.”
“College or die.”
At Tindley Accelerated Schools, that motto is displayed prominently in the halls— a daily reminder to students of their end goal.
Tindley is a charter school network that provides a college-preparatory curriculum to urban youth. Many graduates of the high school are the first in their family to attend college.
Brian Metcalf, the Chief Executive Officer at Tindley Accelerated Schools, is aware of the rising cost of tuition. He says his students can’t afford to bypass college.
“I debate this all the time in my circle and in professional settings. People refer to the Zuckerbergs, Bill Gates. They didn’t graduate,” said MetCalf. “People look for Black or brown folks to have credentials behind their names. That isn’t always the case for our counterparts. There are instances where someone can pick up a phone and make a call to get someone into a particular space. Most of the time, we don’t have that luxury. To position ourselves to be taken seriously, we have to come with a degree or multiple degrees.”
While a college degree does not erase the racial wage gap, it offers higher lifetime earnings. Despite the possibility for future returns on their investment, funds are often a barrier for first-generation college students. As parents become more aware of the burden of loan payments, educators are becoming adept at helping families navigate expenses.
“We talk about cost and fit,” said Metcalf. “You look at what that family is able to do. You might get accepted into Cornell University for 60 grand a year, but based on what you can afford it may not be a good fit. We stress the importance of maintaining a high GPA and having access to free money. You can start (college) but if the money runs out you won’t be able to graduate.”
Advice for students
Educators in Indiana are striving to keep students and families informed of their options, be it enrolling in a four-year institution, obtaining an associate degree, looking into technical schools, or entering the workforce.
Whether students attend college or not, DeLey thinks young people should look at the needs and job opportunities available in the community they plan to live in after high school graduation. This will help them figure out what will be available when they enter the workforce.
Metcalf says that no matter what students choose to pursue, they need to make sure it aligns with their values.
“Parents, don’t push young people into universities that don’t even embrace their philosophies. I knew what type of setting I needed, a family-like setting because I was first generation,” said Metcalf. “Students, find things that motivate you and cause you to get up every morning. Figure out how you want to help people. Find the things you are passionate about because that is what will ultimately bring you wealth, and not only financial wealth but also wealth of spirit.”