It’s not a conversation topic that naturally presents itself; but if you’re in the company of 30-somethings and you’re feeling bold, ask them how much they owe in student loans. The answer might shock you. As I was researching for the updated edition of my book, The Freshman Survival Guide (being published this April), I spoke to numerous people who have been out of college for over a decade, and I was stunned at how many still had significant student loans.
According to CNBC, Americans have more than $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt. That’s 40 million borrowers with an average balance of $29,000. It’s a sobering statistic that has enormous implications for our cultural and economic future as people are postponing marriage, children and the purchase of their first home. Not to mention how it will impact their ability to indulge their entrepreneurial spirit and start businesses.
While talking to students, administrators, faculty, residential advisers, campus ministers and the like about making the transition to college, I found myself having sidebar conversations that went beyond freshman survival strategies. Instead, they revolved around the impact a college education can have and how precarious the situation can be for many Americans. It dawned on me that, in terms of higher education, Americans are faced with a Sophie’s choice of sorts not unlike the one we face in health care.
As someone who has purchased his own health insurance in a for-profit health care world for 20 years, I’ve often felt as though Big Pharma and insurance companies present us with choices along the lines of: “We’ve developed a treatment that can save your life…how much are you willing to pay for it?”
Similarly, we tell people “this college degree (and, most likely, this graduate degree) are essential to having a successful future. What is it worth to you?”
It’s no wonder that student stress levels are through the roof. One recent study found that 45.6 percent of college students reported feeling that things were hopeless, and 30.7 percent felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.
Regardless of how misguided this narrow fixation on what constitutes college “success” has become, the truth is that the stakes are still reasonably high and the financial investment is significant with or without loans. With that in mind, it is essential that students—and their hyper-involved parents—prepare for the transition to college. While college life is always dynamic and evolving, many of the challenges students face remain the same. Here is a brief overview of both the ever-evolving issues and the evergreen ones.
Evolving. Anyone following the news over the past few years knows that the issue of sex on college campuses is increasingly fraught. Many campuses have raised the bar in response to new state laws that require a verbal yes to have sex with someone. An estimated 1,400 institutions of higher education now use some type of affirmative consent definition in their sexual assault policies.
Studies show that the majority of college students are sexually active. But they also indicate that students—and everyone else—believe there is a lot more sex happening on campus than there actually is. One researcher found that 45 percent of the students he interviewed reported that they had never “hooked up.” But the students in that same study thought hookups were the norm for their peers, with 90 percent believing that having had at least two hookups was typical for their peers.
Technology continues to change college as well. Instant access to professors, classmates and scholarship is one of the benefits of being a digital-age student. Issues of privacy, isolation and unintended consequences are the liabilities. A study in 2014 found that 16 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds are involved in compulsive Internet behavior (almost all of the 16 percent admitted to spending over 15 hours a day online).
Evergreen. The classic transition issues still apply. Homesickness, adjusting to new academic expectations, learning time management, developing a new support system are all part of the constellation of concerns. But these pale in comparison with the challenges involved in developing one’s own identity. Who are you? What do you believe? What do you value? What kind of person do you want to become? These questions are at the core of any true education. It may be impossible to put a price tag on it, but without it we are certainly bankrupt.