High debt stymies college graduates

Posted: Monday, December 16, 2002

While the Kenai Peninsula looks at ways to train and put its young people to work, it also should consider ways to help college students graduate free of student-loan debt -- and return home to work.

With college costs on the rise, that may seem like an impossible dream, but the debt burden of many college graduates is so great that it immediately limits their options. That's bad news for the graduates and those who want to hire them.

Nationwide, the average college graduate's student loan debt has reached at least $19,400. In addition, graduates had average credit card debt of about $2,750, according to 2000 figures.

Peninsula employers should consider establishing programs to help new hires pay off their student loan debt as an incentive to attract and retain peninsula students.

A recent study that focused on the debt of law students highlights the problem. That study shows most new lawyers don't consider working for government or public advocacy groups because the need to pay off their student loans forces them to the more lucrative private sector. Legal education debt tops $84,000 for the average new lawyer, The Associated Press reported.

"The bottom line is America's law school graduates are drowning in debt and shut out of public service at a time when the federal government is facing losses of more than half its workforce due to retirements," Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, told the AP.

The legal profession isn't the only one affected. The need to pay off student loans discourages doctors from going to rural communities and inner-city hospitals, the AP reported. We suspect it also discourages those in other fields from pursuing their passions for jobs that produce the biggest paycheck.

Graduating from college with a big debt burden forces one's education to become about earning power. Learning for the sake of learning has an intrinsic value -- no matter how one makes a living. While students should be aware of the economic realities of their chosen profession, they should be encouraged to pursue their passions, not the job that produces the biggest paycheck.

While peninsula industries and businesses bemoan the flight of the young to other locations, they should consider helping peninsula graduates pay off student loans as a way to lure them back home. At the least, they should mentor peninsula high school students on how a big debt burden can limit their options once they graduate from college. Whether students are on a track toward vocational training or whether they are college bound, one of the most valuable life skills they could develop is learning to live without debt. The sooner they learn that lesson, the sooner a world of possibilities not defined by dollars opens up to them.

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