Faces of Devastation: Hurt and Hope Beyond the Statistics
In researching items related to achieving an affordable education one runs across tons of numbers and charts related to the experience. The statistics associated with tuition rises, early dropout rates, graduate debt loads, and unemployment raise awareness that we have a problem.
But the tragedy of it all really hits home when we encounter the people behind the numbers. While we can get a general sense of the financial struggles faced by students as a group through raw information, behind every number there’s a face. The college unaffordability epidemic has names. Their stories break my heart.
The bad news is that we have so many chewed up and despondent lives to show for the experience. The good news is that the problem can be resolved at the individual level, time and time again, by folks like you and me.
First, let’s paint a picture of what’s going on in the lives of people just like us, all around us.
A while back I read about Terrell Kellam, a student from the wrong side of Baltimore’s tracks who sees a college degree as his way to escape his family’s cycle of poverty. However, his inability to stay on top of his payments threatens to include him among the statistics on college dropouts. And about Rosalyn Harris, a single mom facing both continued unemployment and the burdens of debt that come with her new, “worthless” degree from one of these high pressure, possibly predatory diploma mills. And then there’s Brittany Jones, who recently testified in congress about the travails that come with $70,000 in defaulted student debt and a $10 per hour teaching job. And the Masons, who simultaneously grieve the loss of their young daughter and fight off the collectors who call to demand the remainder of her outstanding student loan debt. And I encountered in online forums some of the Johns of the world who contemplate, and sometimes commit, suicide when the hopes and dreams that led them to college turn into a nightmare. And the ones who truly break the heart of this father of young girls: the Amandas of this country who have joined numerous others in prostituting herself to “sugar daddies” in a sex-for-tuition agreement. And many, many other broken people willing to share their tragic stories with a reporter.
And of course I have more tales from my career, ministries, and friendships about those whom I can’t mention by name because it would violate my promises of confidentiality.
Over and over we encounter countless people completely and sometimes permanently devastated by the financial realities of higher education. Folks young and old enter college full of promise and aspirations only to crawl away from campus broke and despondent about what the future holds.
So wherein lies the hope?
Yes the problem is large enough that you or I cannot do much about it in the broad sense. But once we realize that the statistics are but an aggregation of problems faced by individuals we can also understand we don’t need some broad change to the system to make things right. We just need to roll up our sleeves and work with the people who are about to or have become the face of the problem.
Read the stories I linked to above and you’ll notice a few common threads running through them. Note that while the authors call for political solutions, the problem so often isn’t with college, per se. Rather it has everything to do with our individual philosophy about and our approach to it. (And mind you, I don’t point this out in judgement. What I’m about to highlight described me to a T as an incoming freshman all those years ago.) A few such themes that come up time and time again in the stories of failure:
- Ingrained assumptions such as “good schools and good grades lead to good jobs” and/or failure to substantiate promises that a college degree will automatically open doors to quality employment.
- An over-representation of arts and human services majors.
- Attendance at private schools or highly advertised/promoted schools of dubious merit. The schools were often chosen for their familiarity or prestige with little regard for their high tuition costs.
- A comfort with debt and a haziness about its dangers (until it’s too late).
- An unfamiliarity with numbers in general. Often the student feels daunted by financial math and terms. It doesn’t help that the deferment of loans until after graduation takes away the need to contend with these numbers while in school.
- A naive trust of assistance providers and government programs.
- Backgrounds of single parenthood and poverty.
- A limited number of advisors outside of the educational system.
If any of the above describes you or someone you know it would be worthwhile to get on the ball and determine how to avoid the fates already experienced by many others. This is, after all, why I write College Affordology. You’ll save yourself and those you love a lot of unnecessary heartache. And if we all chip in and refuse to be victims eventually the bigger problem will sort itself out as bloated and unconcerned colleges respond the new market realities.