Why do we view a K-12 education as so important that we require it and offer it free of charge, but in an increasingly competitive world, we are making it harder to go beyond high school?
When I came here to go to school at UW-Madison in 1979, my tuition was eight hundred and some dollars. I remember the amount because it was less than I was paying at Thomas More High School in Milwaukee.
I got through with the help of my $3,000 or so in life savings accumulated through working at McDonald's, shoveling snow, cutting grass, and stowing away every birthday and Christmas gift I ever received. When I was in school, I always had a part-time job, but I still had to take out a student loan for about $2,500.
With a major in political science, I was not exactly a hot commodity in the job market anyway, but I graduated in the middle of the deep 1981 recession, which made things worse.
So, I did what any self-respecting recent graduate would do -- I went to graduate school. Eventually I found a job, and worked my way up to a pretty decent position in public sector management.
I have no regrets for studying in the College of Letters & Science, even though I knew it wouldn't set me up for a lucrative career. I studied what I was interested in, and I never took or stayed in a job that I didn't love.
But one reason I had that kind of freedom is that, aside from that small loan, I came out of school almost debt free.
That is not the case with the vast majority of students who will graduate from the UW this week and from campuses around the country this month. The average graduate gets a diploma complete with an outstanding student loan debt around $23,000. And job prospects for grads today are about as tough as they were in 1981.
Add to that the potential that this isn't just a cyclical recession but a structural shift to an economy that requires fewer workers, and we've got a serious issue in front of us.
This is a problem that needs our attention.
College-bound high school juniors and seniors and their parents need better financial counseling. More thorough career counseling should be available to kids at an even earlier age. (Not everybody is cut out for a four-year college.) We need to take a closer look at regulation of for-profit colleges. And state legislatures around the country -- particularly ours in Wisconsin -- need to consider the public benefits of a broadly educated population and invest in it accordingly.
A generation of debt-saddled young people with prospects dimmer than their parents' is not a healthy thing for our society. Education is a public good that we should think of as a smart community investment, not a completely personal responsibility.