Pomp and Circumstance

May 18, 2012

It’s that time of year when Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 is played to the delight of millions of graduates in high school and college. The selection of a march is appropriate given that students must face a certain rise in college tuition and an antagonistic job market. For good or for bad, the credentials of a high school diploma and college degree pave a one-lane bridge to economic and social independence.

For instance, the average unemployment rate of people with just a high school diploma is almost double of those who have a college degree. The same trend exists for weekly earnings. Those with just a high school diploma earn about $626 dollars a week. College graduates earn about $1038 a week. College has become the 13th and 14th grades – college graduation is basic. High schools can’t see themselves as an end point.

I’m not saying to do without the balloons, flowers and presents, but you’re probably better off putting your discretionary funds towards the rising costs of tuition.

I, like many other researchers, concluded that the social capital gained as well as the long term financial benefits of graduating from college outweighed the immediate financial losses of taking out loans. However, I’ve never seen a tuition hike a college president didn’t take. Rises in college tuition has outpaced median family income since the 1980’s. Ironically, states have moved away from need-based aid and have beefed up their merit programs. Understandably, I’ve never seen a family turn down a scholarship—even when that family could pay the freight.

Individuals and communities don’t have a choice. We need more first generation college students to complete postsecondary degree programs, especially from selective private colleges and universities.

However the cost of tuition creates perceived barriers toward graduation and places heavier financial burdens or those who society needs to graduate debt free. Graduates should not gain skills and accrue durable debt.

Colleges must control costs and manage the type of institutional growth that leads to tuition hikes and reliance on student loans. States have to incentivize first-generation students to graduate by using need-based aid programs. Being fiscally responsible means to allow middle and upper middle class families to do what they will always do – pay for the best possible college they can afford. Most importantly, if college participation has become de facto compulsory education, then society must find better ways to pay for it.

My message to the class of 2012, after you grab your diploma, march to the financial aid office and do your best to reduce your loan debt. Remind your officials that the goal of college is about heightening our quality of life. You’re in college now. You can do the math—college is not about merely making poor people smarter, and it shouldn’t be in the business of making smart people poor.