Monday, June 18, 2018
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The System is Broken
Walter Salm, Editor

The title of a cover article in a recent issue of Consumer Reports reads, "I Kind of Ruined My Life by Going to College," this from a person with $152,000 in student loan debt and no job. The article goes on to say that 42 million people owe $1.3 trillion in student debt, and the vast majority of them haven't a ghost of a chance of repaying these loans. First of all, many of them are unemployed, and it's kind of hard to pay off a loan when there's no income. Secondly, the vast majority received zero in the way of practical training to prepare them for a career in the real world. Add to this the fact that everything — tuition, fees, books, food and shelter, are all so damnably expensive, that many mired-in-debt college grads are wondering if it was worth it. And jobs are so hard to get today — any kind of job.

So what can we do about it? First, the laws that govern student loans have to be changed, on both the federal and state levels. Secondly, the federal government should institute a new program of debt forgiveness and reduction that is realistic for all parties concerned. The major problem is that the feds guaranteed that student loans are taken over by private lenders, and these private corporations cash in royally with late fees and usuriously high interest rates. The federal government in effect, has legalized a system of loan-sharking to students who have absolutely no recourse other than to hope they win a lottery. In the meantime, many of them are living at home with aging parents because they have no place else to go. A large number of today's college students don't need tuition loans. These are the students from overseas, and they are supported through U.S. colleges by governments and/or wealthy families. If it weren't for these well-heeled foreign students, many colleges/universities would likely have to close down.

The system is broken, badly broken.

Back at the dawn of history, when I went to college (some of my relatives had just invented fire) tuition rates were considerably lower, yet even then I had to do a lot of juggling. Two things came to my rescue: virtually free tuition at the City College of New York, and the GI Bill. I had about 20 transfer credits under my belt from Union College when I finished my two years of mandatory service in the army. As a veteran, I was able to get into CCNY fairly easily, and matriculated after one semester, reducing my tuition to zero. I worked at a full-time job during the day in an electronics publishing house, learning my craft on a low-paying trainee job and receiving a small but highly welcome stipend from Uncle Sam each month that I was in college. It helped pay the rent for a Manhattan apartment that I shared with three other guys. There wasn't even a shred of a chance of my attending graduate school. Too expensive, even then. Looking back, I know I would never be able to repeat that magical feat today; the times and costs have changed too drastically.

When I was discharged from the U.S. Army, I had a clear and practical vision of what I needed and wanted, and that vision has served me well for 56 years as a technology writer and editor. My rude awakening came before the army, when the Dean advised me that my presence was no longer desired at Union College. It was my sophomore year; I had been a physics major and failed. All the time I really wanted to be a writer, specifically a technology writer. So when I entered CCNY after Korea, I majored in English and never looked back. While I was still earning trainee wages at Gernsback Publishing, I sold my first freelance article to Electronics Illustrated magazine (1957), and that marked the beginning of a long career in this industry. This was followed by professional editorial jobs with several trade magazines as well as consumer publications, and a whole bunch of special assignments with electronics and computer magazines and directories. I worked on trade show dailies, which were really fat magazines, not the skinny, wimpy dailies we see these days, and these brief "jobs" happened in tandem with or as part of my regular employment. That could not happen today. On the rare occasions that I was without a job, I was able to earn a living with my freelance writing. That also probably could not happen today.

I said it earlier, and here it is again: the system is broken, badly broken. There are a lot of possible fixes but they have several requirements. First, there has to be an overhaul of our secondary education. Many students opt for needlessly expensive 4-year college, when all they really need is a 2-year Associate degree or even less, representing a practical hands-on program of real-world usefulness. In today's world, a 4-year B.S. in computer engineering is often far less practical than a 6-month intensive course in computer programming. We must encourage companies of all types to implement realistic on-the-job apprentice training programs. And the Federal government has to get involved with getting these programs in place.

One more thing: we really need a student loan forgiveness/payback program that will not net a lot of high interest windfalls for the commercial lenders involved who have been empowered by the Federal government to collect huge amounts of money. I hesitate to call them blood-suckers, but I can't think of a better adjective. They really need to be removed from the picture. Not tomorrow, but today.  

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