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Thomas R. Horgan: Students should not let debt scare them away from college

July 21. 2013 3:40PM

New Hampshire citizens are no fools. Perhaps that’s why the presidential primary starts right here every four years, because the nation needs the first steps in the process to be taken by people who don’t rush to easy judgments, who do their homework, and who have more than their fair share of common sense.

Thankfully, those same common-sense traits will serve readers of this page well in contemplating the truly short-sighted advice recently offered in an editorial entitled “Student debt: Washington subsidizes it.” It stated: “If politicians really care about the best interests of these young adults, they should encourage students to think twice before going into debt for higher education in the first place rather than making it easier for them to do so at a lower interest rate.”

The editorial was talking about Congress’ inability to prevent a major interest rate hike from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent for federal student loans. Fortunately, Congress appears to be working on correcting this error now. While debating the process by which our nation’s leaders “help” higher education is important, we should all agree that advising young people to avoid higher education solely to avoid debt is a terrible idea.

Unquestionably, college is not for everyone, but it still remains one of the best financial and personal investments you can make in your future. I absolutely agree with the editor’s statement that going to college, taking out loans and not finishing your degree is a bad choice. Students must very carefully consider their decision to take out student loans, and they need to make a real commitment to finishing their degrees.

Colleges also have an obligation to make sure students understand the financial commitments they are undertaking. As the editorial suggests, some disreputable companies have recently entered the higher-education marketplace, and students need to be particularly careful when selecting an institution. Without question, debt levels are too high and higher-education institutions need to continue to work hard at reducing costs and wisely expending scarce resources. Meanwhile, our state’s leaders in Concord are to be congratulated on restoring funding to our higher-education institutions in the state budget and returning the UNIQUE Scholarship funds to their intended purpose of funding students. These were not easy decisions to make, but they demonstrate our elected leaders’ commitment to developing an educated workforce for New Hampshire.

Many now question the value of going into debt to get a diploma. Respectfully, I think that very question ignores the lifetime value of a college education. Here are a few incentives to consider when thinking about investing in your higher education:

• Statistics show that those who hold college degrees are healthier, have significantly lower unemployment rates, earn much higher wages, are more engaged in their communities and vote at higher rates.

• It is estimated that by 2018 13.8 million new jobs and 33 million replacement jobs will be available. Two-thirds of these jobs will require at least some college education.

The New Hampshire College & University Council is a nonprofit consortium of our state’s public and private colleges and universities working together to reduce costs and share resources. One program we promote in partnership with the New Hampshire Department of Education is NH Scholars, which encourages high school students to take rigorous academic courses in high school so they will be prepared to do college-level work or go into the workplace. Fully 87 percent of NH Scholars head to college entirely because they took more challenging classes in high school. Being better prepared academically helps increase student access to higher education. Keeping federal student loan interest rates low is another important avenue to higher education access.

College isn’t a given, and it’s not for everyone. But scaring students away from pursuing higher education with exaggerated threats of debt is not helpful. Our future depends on an educated workforce and citizenry. We already hear from many New Hampshire employers that they cannot find the skilled workers they need to fill high-tech occupations. Discouraging students from going on to college will not serve any of us well.

Thomas R. Horgan is president and CEO of the New Hampshire College & University Council.

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