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Greg Blass
Who benefits from crushing levels of student debt facing today’s graduates?

Again this summer, we see plenty of young Long Islanders getting ready for college. Sadly, greater and greater numbers of them march toward a future of huge personal debt, and lower and lower quality of education. In fact, growing student loan debt has become a cruel scandal that really impacts all of us.

Blass_Greg_head_badgeTaking just a cursory look into this second-highest form of consumer debt in America, now a whopping $1.3 trillion, exceeded only by mortgages, reveals an incredibly deeper problem: how most colleges and universities engage in a shameful racket. Their spendthrift binges these past 40 years or so leave more than 70 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients, according to Market Watch, with debt that averages, for the class of 2015, $35,051. And unlike mortgages with their 3-percent interest rates, student loans saddle their borrowers with 8 percent rates that are certain to rise even more.

But the student loan debt clock is the real shocker to behold as it ticks along at $2,726.27 every second. See below. That’s the skyrocketing balance due on student loans nationwide. It’s not a pretty picture.

How does enormous student debt impact all of us? For starters, those big purchases that drive the U.S. economy, such as houses or cars, are well out of reach for those yoked with student debt, some 40 million Americans. Nor can they find their way out of their parents’ homes to live on their own, nor save for retirement. And what is happening to new business start-ups, and the entrepreneurial spirit, when such a vast sector of our population is struggling with long-term debt and poor credit ratings often well past their 40th birthdays.

As college costs spiral ever higher, notice how the colleges and universities themselves seem immune from criticism about this student debt nightmare. There was a time, up till say the late 1960s, where only about a fifth of high school grads went to college. They were academically prepared to do so, could read well, and knew algebra, math, geometry and the like. That’s how the SATs were structured to measure a student’s aptitude for college admission. These were pre-dumbed down admission tests, where an applicant addressed complex ideas in literate English. College was all about learning and about giving our future leaders an introductory understanding of the world.

Everything started to change in the late ’60s. It became an ideological rule that all should go to college, leading to an academic and social earthquake. Droves of college freshmen arrived on campuses ill-prepared. In response, remedial courses sprouted, and revamped college courses became easier, and yet easier again. Core requirements had titles and content that were laughable. What’s worse, colleges started to focus on money when it dawned upon them that these swarms of the unready paid tuition. Thus tuition started a climb that has never stopped.

In came the banks, shelling out high interest student loans by the truckload. Academic quality fell more as the colleges plied their new business model by an ill-conceived cutting of personnel costs. Hiring eagerly changed to contingent, adjunct faculty with varying teaching skills. Worst of all, as students became more in the nature of customers, colleges catered to them big-time, inflating grades and offering easy, fun courses. So many students have been fine with this. After all, they’re in a real college setting, with credit hours and stone buildings, making it seem like college, but in fact in too many cases it really is not.

Once a rite of passage into adulthood, college is now too often a way to steer clear of it, with inexperienced students coddled like narcissistic poodles who are increasingly spared the stress of disagreement or, God forbid, divergent viewpoints and critical thinking. College administrators don’t stop here, but go on to cave into angry student demands to eliminate all that does not suit them. Most professors, themselves products of the ’60s, now regard social change and equality as their college’s mission. This is fine with the students, where the zeal to learn – truly to learn – seems to diminish.

In the meantime, for college grads who can find work in this almost unreported, terrible economy, employers, as never before, in both the public and private sectors, shake their heads at the decline in the abilities of so many college grads whom they hire. At great expense, students who wanted to learn little or nothing did just that, and banks continue to take lucrative advantage, virtually as partners of colleges and universities hellbent on extracting big tuition bucks.

How do these graduates handle their student debt? The Consumer Protection Bureau tells us 1 in 4 student loan borrowers is now either in delinquency or default of payments. Meanwhile, high school grads entering this loan market are met with colleges that compete for enrollment with shamelessly non-academic priorities. For example, check out the current, annual report of the American Association of University Professors, entitled “Lopsided Growth,” documenting how colleges and universities have dramatically increased hiring of full-time, non-faculty professionals, chiefly administrators and coaches.

The American Association of University Professors also reports that, from 1978 till 2014, administrative positions are up 369 percent, part-time faculty are up 286 percent, full-time, non-tenure track positions are up 259 percent, but full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty positions, the real quality professors, are up only 23 percent. From 2000 till 2010, administrators’ median salaries climbed by 39 percent (75 percent for college presidents alone), while full-time professors’ pay rose 19 percent.

David Kociemba, however, said it all about the crude schemes of colleges to attract students, incurring enormous expense in the process, but passing most of it onto student tuition, making a self-fulfilling prophecy of long-term student debt. Kociemba, himself an adjunct professor at Emerson College, who chairs one of the committees that drafted this American Association of University Professors report, puts it this way: “Colleges try to showcase their value through visuals like dining halls, palatial new buildings and the ubiquitous rock-climbing walls, not the quality of their professors or programs.” He goes on to say, “The university’s and college’s primary product is delivering an education, and [colleges] don’t even devote half of their resources to the classroom. Instead, [resources] are directed toward transforming schools into the most expensive summer camp ever.”

While there is so much more to this discussion, let’s close with a plea to our high schools as well as to their college-bound students: 17-year-olds have limited appreciation of what it means to go into tens of thousands of dollars of debt. Please offer students, even those few who are not bound for college, courses in financial literacy. And to the students entering college this year, be the first to pressure your well-heeled college administrators and faculty to cut the costs, and the obvious perks and frills. Be a leader – they need this – on most campuses it’s the blind leading the blind. Start an undergound student newspaper. Try Ralph Nader’s consumer advocate approach. Get them back to education. Then write a column or a book about it. Future generations will always be grateful.

Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg