Avoiding the Need for Student Debt Relief

Student debt relief is a significant and serious issue, and I applaud all of those who are finding solutions to help alleviate the financial burdens of student borrowers, such as President Obama's recent executive order meant to ease the student loan burden. Excessive debt encumbered by students -- and sometimes their parents -- to pay for college is just too common a problem. It sounds simplistic, maybe insolent, but we need to say "Don't incur debt in the first place." Now let me explain.

I think we need be more proactive and vocal, and make sure that when we are sending out the message "Go to college!" that we are not implicitly saying "at any cost." Let's be real. Let's be proactive. Let's be honest. Let's tell people that the cost of education is not worth it if you end up selling your future to get a degree. If you get yourself in so deep that you don't know if you'll ever get out of debt - it's not worth it. While we encourage people to follow their dreams, we need to encourage them to also deal with certain realities. We are not being kind if we support someone in an endeavor that will be injurious to them in anyway -- that includes amassing college debt. Make good choices up front. Make realistic choices up front.

There are tips out there on how to avoid college debt, such as applying for as many scholarships as possible, buying used textbooks, working on campus or in paid internships, making sure you receive as much financial aid as possible through Pell and state grants. Saint Paul College has programs to help students save, such as the new TuitionMatch-MN where eligible participants have a chance to triple their savings for college, while gaining employment skills and improving their financial literacy. We also have the Power of YOU program for low-income recent public high school graduates where they can attend college tuition free, if financially eligible. But the biggest tip we can give someone is to be realistic and choose the best college pathway for themselves that they can afford.

College matters. Education matters. Having a well-paying and satisfying job matters. Being able to live as free as possible from college debt matters. I don't believe the American dream for most people is to go to the most expensive Ivy League or most prestigious research institution, and then go on to become rich and famous. I think most people want to have a job that provides them with a living wage, which allows them to enjoy their families and friends when they're not working. I think most of us want to live in safe communities where all people can live with dignity and pride, make an honest living, have access to as much education as we desire, so we are able to contribute to society and be a part of the greater good.

I like to think that one of the most proactive things anyone can do to help prospective students to avoid incurring too much debt, is to encourage our youth to explore all the higher-education possibilities out there. That includes advocating for public community and technical education as a viable pathway to 4year institutions to pursue baccalaureate degrees and beyond or as a direct pathway to a good job and career. At community colleges, we too often hear of students being pushed by their parents, school counselors -- and even their friends -- into going to a 4-year college, oftentimes a much more expensive college, when what they wanted instead was a career and technical education leading to a good paying job. Or maybe they're not ready for college and living in dorms and the whole college experience, and they end up dropping out of college. I'm not against four year colleges - in fact we encourage students to start their 4-year degree here at Saint Paul College and then transfer to a 4-year institution to get their bachelor's degree. I'm saying one solution to decrease student debt is starting at an institution, such as Saint Paul College, where the cost per credit is less than half of the cost of a credit at a 4-year college or a private 2-year institution.

I think we all know that there is no simple solution to solving college debt problems; like most things, a multi-pronged approach will bring better results. We all need to work. It means we need to advocate in every way available to help elementary and secondary educational institutions to prepare students for post-secondary education in every way possible. Saint Paul College partners with Saint Paul Public Schools in such programs as Youth Career Connect. We also have partnered with Saint Paul high schools through a College Ready grant from the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation. College costs less if a student is prepared for college-level courses. It takes less time for a well-prepared student to finish college, if less time is spent on remedial education upon entering college.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez visited our campus in May to promote the national Youth CareerConnect program and participate in a roundtable discussion with Mayor Chris Coleman, SPPS officials and myself about youth jobs and career development. Students and counselors from the city and school Right Track program also participated. I like what Secretary Perez said about urging elected officials to reflect in their budgets what they care about: "Budgets are moral documents. They reflect the priorities and values of a community. And I want to thank all the elected officials here for their support because that's what it's all about. When someone tells me, who's elected, 'I care about something.' my immediate action is that I'd like to see that reflected in your budget. Tell me that you care. That's the most vivid manifestation you can give...that seems like money well spent." ( Video of roundtable: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAAHQptYrhY&feature=youtu.be )

We need to continue to help our youth early in their education, so that they are truly learning and have been given the tools for learning throughout their life time. We need every citizen, every business, every community to care about the youngest among us so that they are better prepared for learning and better prepared for their future. Let's all continue to help college-bound students with making the best informed choices for themselves -- choices that promote their future with a great return on their investment, and not burden their future with unnecessary debt.