Are College Admissions Directors Out Of Touch With The Rest of Us?

A new survey of 576 college admissions directors about the state of student indebtedness gives us a sneak peek into the beliefs of those who create financial aid policies at both public and private colleges and universities in America.   And spoiler alert – the news isn’t good.

This survey, developed jointly by Inside Higher Ed editors and Gallup researchers and consultants, takes the pulse of key university administrators about issues regarding average student indebtedness.  According to the Project on Student Debt, the average loan debt accrued after four years of a college education is now $25,250., an all-time high.  These loans come from all sources: government, university and private sources.

Not surprisingly, when asked to identify the most “reasonable” debt range for a four year program, 42% of surveyed admissions directors chose the current $20K-$30K range.  More importantly, though, a full 28% of private college admissions directors and 12% of public college admissions directors chose the $30K-$50K range as a reasonable debt range.  This leaves the average person wondering what these people are thinking because their opinions are very much at odds with public opinion.

The reality is that a full 53% of college graduates under the age of 25 are either unemployed or under-employed, way up from 41% in 2000.  According to the Oraganization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), these figures suggest that new college graduates actually fare worse than other sectors in the job market.

So what are these college admissions directors thinking?

Having been a college admissions dean for many years, I understand the ‘silo effect’ created by working within an organization, and the pressure to enroll a class while meeting all of that institution’s needs.  You can only do what you can do within the culture of your university.  There is a financial aid budget allotted annually that must be spread around to cover as much student need as possible, but often it just is not enough.  Most private colleges use the policy known as “gapping” – offering aid but not enough to meet the need of the admitted student who must then make up the difference with loans or sources of income outside of the family income/asset stream.  Private loans usually carry a higher interest rate, making the cost of college more than originally estimated.  Most applicants are unaware of this when they apply.

While I can understand the opinions represented in this survey, I fundamentally disagree with the entire way we support education in this culture.  We seem to have no national consensus about what education should be now, how it should serve the citizenry.  There is currently little connection between the degrees students earn in college and available job opportunities.  No one is driving this bus.

When I went to college back in the Baby Boomer days, education was a mind expander designed to open the world and help us think critically about the great issues of the day.  In that very different world, is no surprise that this happened coincident with the Civil Rights, anti-war and Feminist movements.  Today, however, with the world moving on at astonishing speed, admissions directors are reporting that 96% of parents and 84% of students are focused on that gold ring of employment at the end of a 4 year degree.

And herein lies the disconnect.

Once again, we are looking for the leadership within the college/university community to help structure a Deep Rethink of the whole process.  What are we actually doing when we charge $50K+ annually for a rite of passage with just the vaguest of promises of employment, when so many graduates often have no way to repay those borrowed dollars at the end?

How much do we really value education in the US anyway?