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Who to Blame: The Student Debt Accountability Question

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - MAY 15: Students and relatives exit Rutgers University after attending the 250th anniversary commencement ceremony on May 15, 2016 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. President Barack Obama will be the first sitting president to speak at the school's commencement. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

“We need to hold universities accountable!” This buzz phrase has taken hold of Gen Y as they take on the student debt crisis facing our nation.

Sitting here and waiting for higher Ed to take control of the problem has about as much merit as Netflix assuming everyone who uses their platform is also a paying customer. So, instead of betting on university accountability coming from the top down, the accountability can – and probably should – come from the bottom up.

This approach starts with you, me, us.

College: Consumption good or investment

Many students go to college because it’s the “thing to do” or because it was something their family was able to afford. It’s a step in our young lives that is often pushed on us by several forces: parents, teachers, friends, community, society and even ourselves.

Though it is often viewed as an investment in our future earnings, it’s important to note that the act of going to college is, at its most bare, a simple consumption of a good.

Devoting the time, money and effort in anything, including a college education, in order to receive some kind of profitable result, is an investment. But, sometimes devoting the time, money and effort is also part of the fun. That’s the “college experience” college-goers are seeking.


To illustrate: Picture the amount of time and effort necessary to complete a marathon (even just walking the race). For any person entering the race, this could be considered an investment in getting their butt back in shape, but it could just as easily be that that person wanted to run the race for fun.

Likewise, backpacking through Europe could be an investment in your cultural sophistication, but it is definitely a consumption good, as well.

Going to college reaps the result of having a degree in hand, that is the tangible return on your investment. But that degree is just a piece of paper, and the way you choose to live out (or, “consume”) your collegiate career will largely dictate your post-graduate prospects.

Holding ’em accountable is tough

Now, imagine taking out a loan to buy an all-inclusive $10,000 excursion across Europe, staying in hostels with strangers in different towns and cities for three months. For many, this is an extremely enriching, once-in-a-lifetime-experience. But, what if at the end of your trip, you are rather unimpressed, or even unhappy with the experience altogether?

How do you hold Europe accountable for your experience? Do you ask for your money back? Do you give Europe a one-star review on Yelp? What do you do? Maybe, you can tell the bank that you aren’t going to pay because you didn’t get your money’s worth.

The same challenges apply to universities.

Education activists propose different ways of holding universities accountable, such as standardized testing in all majors or tying school funding to job placement rates. Exit-testing to show college-level proficiency in the respective majors may challenge “prestigious” universities to step up their game when the numbers show that low-ranking schools actually have higher performing students. But, making sure these tests translate to real world skills would prove to be difficult.

College scorecards — which provide information on costs, rates of loan default and graduation and employment prospects for universities — have already been introduced and can prove to be a better metric for picking a top-tier school. But this method delegates the responsibility of selecting a “good” school to the student, often only 18-years-old.

Bottom-up accountability

You, as well as I, know that college is what we make it. Like a Europe trip, we can have a bad tour guide, bad service at a restaurant in Brussels or have the bus break down on the way to Florence. But it’s up to us to make the best out of these experiences.

We can complain about a boring professor, an awful class or a skill that was never taught or required, but it’s up to us to turn those college lemons into lemonade. Getting the job can be tough, but it’s hard to pin the blame solely on the university.

To be sure, most, if not all, will help place you in job positions after you graduate, if you put forth some genuine effort and mosey on down to the career center. According to the Gallup-Purdue Index Report, about a third of college graduates from 2010 to 2016 did not visit the career center.

It is important to note that whether a college degree is a consumption good or an investment, it is no guarantee of well-being in the future. Some of these proposals to hold universities accountable may help, but in the end, it’s on us to make that degree worth it; and that’s fair.

Some jobs may fall into the laps of some college graduates. But the good jobs come to those who hustle and hold themselves accountable – the people out there making the “college experience” worth their time and money.


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