Toaster Talk

Canceling School Debt is Not the Answer

While I cannot express how canceling my school debt would positively impact my present situation, my future and that of my young son, I would be selfish to claim this is the only answer to an American crisis that requires more than a bandage.

It is simply not enough to #CancelMyDebt, as proposed by Elizabeth Warren, and what I expect to be one of many, many solutions suggested by candidates for the Presidency and Congress in 2020.

Don’t get me wrong. I would gladly accept the peace offering of $76,000 (the remainder of my school debt). I’d even accept the proposed maximum of $50,000, for decades of government indifference and lack of regulation for a public higher education system that has literally been allowed to go AWOL. I appreciate that this issue has finally surfaced to the forefront, but not if it’s simply a bid to buy votes from Millennials and Generation Z’ers (after all, they represent roughly 40% of the electorate and are most likely the majority currently afflicted by this financial crisis.) You know as well as I do, there’s no doubt this is factoring into the hype about a higher ed debt solution. 

But if Americans, even the top 0.1%, are going to own my school debt, they should also be entitled to understand why they’re paying for this. They should also be given a game plan for how things will change moving forward so they don’t have to foot the bill again. Rich or not, they don’t deserve to inherit a problem that should have, not could have, been avoided.

I Did Things “the Right Way”

Shoulda listened to all Blue Eyes and did things “My Way.” But nope. I had to do things the “right way,” or so I was told. And so here we are today.

As a first-generation college graduate, I am not a millennial (missed it by a hair). But like many Americans my age, I still experience the daily burden of school debt. A college degree was what would set me free. This May marked the twentieth anniversary of obtaining that first degree and my initial bill of well over $100,000 (before interest). While it did make my family proud, freedom was not included in the sticker price.

Since then, I received my Master of Science (at the cost of another high-end sports car, before interest) and did everything my employer told me was necessary to receive that elusive promotion. 

As a female in a technical field, I was not only outnumbered by men, but out-paid. But I learned the hard way, that a woman should be seen and not heard. The “rules” that were set forward for me to play by were as much a game of smoke and mirrors as the actual business at which I built my career. But that’s another issue in and of itself.

For eighteen of the twenty years of my award-winning career, I worked for the very bait and switch system that knowingly allowed (and encouraged) countless young people and their families to be put into unrecoverable debt under the guise of receiving a better future in return, public higher education. 

I was in charge of using technology to sell the dream of a better tomorrow to families, many of whom worked multiple jobs to support their first-generation college dependents. Our marketing efforts and online tactics convinced families why they needed to make this investment without providing them with quantified outcomes.

Today this shell game stands as the single biggest regret of my life.

The Business of Higher Education

American public higher education is a business, a BIG business. And ideally it produces products (aka graduates) who then become additional working, tax-paying and law-abiding Americans. But what reputable “business” gives its customers a product that has zero net return on investment?

And when these “businesses” are funded even partially by tax payer money, where exactly are the checks and balances? A Board of Trustees (appointed by the university’s state government in many cases), that truly does not have their finger on the day-to-day of this big business, is not enough. 

I really want a Porsche. But there’s a reason I don’t run out to the dealership today to buy one. Yet I have watched first-hand, parents take their children into admissions offices and sign on the dotted line without any reassurances of what they will be receiving in return. In fact, we have to wait years if not a lifetime, to see if our “investment” pans out. Best case scenario, like me, your child finds a job that just pays for the debt and maybe a house and a car. But at this rate, I will still be paying for my undergraduate education, not even my Masters Degree, by the time my young son enters college.

It’s fiscally irresponsible and logistically unfeasible to believe that the federal government or tax payers, should suddenly inherit the past and future choices of almost 16 million students to attend college each year. However, if the institution of public higher education insists on operating more like a for-profit corporation the government needs to do more and intervene and treat them as such or start cutting off funding.

Jen Bell

Canceling School Debt Through Accountability

The following represents my list of suggestions for remedying this crisis well beyond the initial forgiveness of student loans. They will not be popular with academic administrators and in some cases, the professors on the front-lines of teaching these students. But something has to be done.

  1. Eliminate federal funding for those colleges and universities who cannot produce legitimate numbers for job placement of graduates in every major. 

    I worked for an institution who could not produce data to support the job placement of its graduates, not even a small majority of them. Would you purchase a vehicle whose sales tag couldn’t tell you how many miles per gallon it gets on the highway or a car without tires on its wheels? I propose that the federal and state governments:
    • Reallocate said funding to institutions that do support majors that are relevant to the current global marketplace AND the education of students in trades, vocational professions and those that support American infrastructure projects.
  2. Reduce the cost of a public college education by capping high-level administrative salaries and eliminating “perks.”

    CEOs of private companies are chastised almost daily in the media for how much money they make in relations to their employees. When is the last time a University President or high-level administrator from academia was criticized for making hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars per year (in just base salary…not including bonuses, vehicles and homes, all of which somehow magically are provided by a 501(c)(3) foundation under the guise of its necessity to raise money for the institution) while current students need to access a food bank in order to eat while they are attending college?

    Yes, I worked at a University that had a food pantry for students (that they asked us to personally support and keep supplied). Shouldn’t this alone make you question what the hell is going on here?

    Furthermore, what public University President needs to be driven around in a high-end vehicle when an institution has numerous fleet vehicles of lesser opulence?
    • Reallocate salary savings to reduce the overall cost of attendance and/or reallocate salary savings (and “perks”) to those students interested in a trade or vocational-based education.
  3. Instate career, not just financial aid, counseling BEFORE admittance for prospective students AND their parents/guardians.

    While I understand you may not know what you want to be when you grow up, more attention needs to be paid to not how students are going to pass their classes and meet their credit requirements for graduation within four years (simply so institutions can get higher rankings based on the graduation rate), and more about what they’re going to do with a degree in their chosen field. Yes, there are professors who are very well-networked and continue to be involved in their industries. But I’ve also witnessed many professors who haven’t held a job, full-time or contracted, in their industries in decades, if ever.
  4. Regardless of faculty tenure and government bureaucracy, curriculum should be required to adjust more rapidly to changes in the global and even local marketplaces. 
  5. Instate a federally-funded public service announcement campaign that will educate prospective college-aged students of the opportunities within the trades industry. 

The Rough Truth about Canceling School Debt

The current outstanding balance of federally funded student loans is at almost $1.6 trillion. This doesn’t include private and bank loans taken out by students and their families. 

I would love to believe that addressing this issue now, after I and countless others, have been out of school and suffering financially for the past 20 years is one of sincerity and not just a bid to buy votes from millennials who now represent almost half of active votes. Bandages don’t heal serious diseases. As a country we need a surgical solution to this issue. And it’s time that politicians listen to the needs and ideas of their constituents. 

For a country full of big ideas, why is it that we can’t get this one right?

Well, part of the reason is that we don’t have Americans like Mike Rowe in office. Yeh, you heard me correctly. Mike Rowe, of Dirty Jobs fame. He is a huge proponent of the trades. And I support him whole-heartedly.

What’s amazing about someone like Mike Rowe, is that he’s not only brought the higher education crisis to the forefront, he’s taken personal steps to help, right now with a scholarship fund that connects future tradespeople with the skills education they need, the Foundation.

Thank You Mike Rowe

In his words…

“America has become slowly but undeniably disconnected from the most fundamental elements of civilization—food, energy, education, and the very nature of work itself.

Over the last 30 years, America has convinced itself that the best path for the most people is an expensive, four-year degree. Pop culture has glorified the “corner office job” while unintentionally belittling the jobs that helped build the corner office. As a result, our society has devalued any other path to success and happiness. Community colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeship programs are labeled as ‘alternative.’ Millions of well-intended parents and guidance counselors see apprenticeships and on-the-job training opportunities as ‘vocational consolation prizes,’ best suited for those not cut out for the brass ring: a four-year degree. The push for higher education has coincided with the removal of vocational arts from high schools nationwide. And the effects of this one-two punch have laid the foundation for a widening skills gap and massive student loan debt.

Today, the skills gap is wider than it’s ever been. The cost of college tuition has soared faster than the cost of food, energy, real estate, and health care. Student loan debt is the second highest consumer debt category in the United States with more than 44 million borrowers who collectively owe more than $1.5 trillion. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 7 million jobs available across the country, the majority of which don’t require a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of ‘shovel ready’ jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel. We keep lending money we don’t have to people who can’t pay it back for jobs that don’t exist. Bit by bit, our culture reaffirms the misguided belief that a career in the skilled trades shouldn’t be desired. And that lack of enthusiasm has reshaped our expectations of a ‘good job’ into something that no longer resembles work.”

Mike Rowe, Mike Rowe Works Foundation

Enough said. I mean how the hell could I possibly follow that?

America’s Future is At Stake

Many universities and colleges will say higher education “is an investment in your future.” For many public institutions of higher education, that “investment” is actually just in the retirement funds of their top administrators and nothing more. This needs to change, and it needs to change now.

For almost two decades I had a seat at the table, where I can tell you, the futures of so many young people were significantly compromised at the cost of exceeding profit margins. 

I am proud to report today that I am no longer at that table, because I couldn’t bear having my personal integrity and moral standards compromised by such activity. When I said a woman should be seen and not heard, well, for me, that resulted in my termination. 

I’m currently in the process of operating 3 small businesses (the Toaster Adrift, Holly Hills Lane & to make ends meet, so as you can imagine, I try to steer away from politics for fear of consumer retaliation. But for me, college debt is an issue that has impacted my life and that of my family for the past twenty years AND for the indefinite, foreseeable future.

I had to break the silence and be willing to stand up for a cause that I’m sure so many people believe in but possibly know very little about. Our country is facing so many challenges at the moment, this one actually seems almost semi-inconsequential. But it’s not. In-fact, you can trace so many of our country’s current problems back to our education system.

It’s important that you educate yourself on the miseducation you’ve received for decades. I ask that you support programs such as Mike Rowe’s and have a serious, no-shit discussion with any college-age children in your home about the reality of their future. No one should have to begin that new tomorrow already behind the eight-ball. And I ask that you please reach out to your elected officials. The future of your children, my child and our country depends on the decisions we make to change things starting today.

We can fix this. Will it be difficult, and at times seem impossible? Yup. But we all need to remember how our country was born and all we’ve been through together since then. We need to get to WORK and do it together.