It’s hard out there for a grad

For more information on student debt, college affordability and what we can do to improve the situation, visit the Institute for College Access & Success at
For more information on the UnCollege movement, visit

Bad news for college graduates: They’re leaving school with an average of $24,000 in student-loan debt, and 10 percent carry $40,000 or more. That rough start guarantees that they’ll delay some milestones, like buying a home and starting a family. Some will still be paying student loans when it’s time for their kids to think about college.

The new state budget is only going to make it harder to pay for school. Tuition hikes are a given; for some students, it will mean taking out even more in loans to stay in school.

That makes it really no surprise that a movement has sprung up to encourage young adults to skip college. Called “UnCollege,” it’s funded by a grant from the Thiel Foundation, founded by Peter Thiel. The foundation awards $100,000 fellowships to people under 20, provided they drop out of college and become entrepreneurs.

But that’s not really the choice most young people face. Instead, most recent high-school graduates are stuck between a rock and a hard place: Take a dead-end, low-paying job (if one’s available), or borrow heavily in the hope that eventually they’ll make enough money to pay back their loans.

But UnCollege is already too real for many young Californians; college, which has been a great social equalizer and major source of upward mobility in this country since the days of the GI Bill, is out of reach. The problem isn’t that they don’t want an education; the problem is how we’re expecting them to pay for it.

It’s true, not everyone needs a college degree; there are many rewarding and remunerative jobs that don’t require one. Years ago, a high-school student could learn everything from plumbing to welding to culinary arts in industrial and vocational classes, which could be followed by apprenticeships. Now, young people who want to move into those often-lucrative careers must take courses at for-profit schools—and pay for it with loans, which puts students outside the traditional liberal-arts track in the same precarious position as their university-bound friends.

We had it right, at one time, when college was affordable and accessible to every Californian. Apparently, we thought the cost was too high. We’re going to find out soon how cheap accessible, affordable education was, at least compared to the alternative.

There’s a lot we can do to make college more accessible and affordable. We can expand the federal student-loan program; institute programs to forgive government-subsidized loans in exchange for public-service work (which often pays too little to make student-loan payments, anyway); crack down on private lenders with a history of taking advantage of students; simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA); and improve options for vocational training at both the high-school and college level.

No, not every person needs—or wants—to go to college. But we owe it to ourselves to make sure that college is affordable and accessible for anyone who can benefit. It’s the one thing guaranteed to keep California moving forward.