Local students and grads drowning in debt

Student loans weigh heavy on a record number of students and graduates

Mountain View resident Patricia Zeider chose to attend Cal State University Monterey Bay for its location — just far enough from home that her mother couldn't check in on her, just close enough that she could come home on weekends. She took out loans to pay for a nicer off-campus apartment as well as a semester studying abroad in South Korea.

She was interested in cultural anthropology and planned to teach English to adults. She graduated in May of last year with about $28,000 in debt. She's now sleeping on a futon in her mother's mobile home and working 12-hour days at Starbucks and the Mountain View Public Library to make her loan payments.

Cinthya Vieyra, a first-generation college student from Redwood City, never imagined going anywhere for higher education except a local community college. But she got into Notre Dame de Namur in Belmont and worked two jobs and took out federal loans to cover the $45,000-per-year cost of tuition, room and board. Focused solely on getting an education, she didn't worry about how much it would cost her later on, she said.

Rand DeCastro, a 36-year-old web designer from Guam who works at a startup in Palo Alto, is working to pay off the $148,000 he accumulated during a two-year art program at The Art Institute of Seattle. He now pays about $700 per month in loans, which does not include his currently deferred federal loans. He and his partner have gone back to school multiple times, partially to defer on their loans and to take a break from the never-ending debt.

This is the state of the nation's loan system today.

With student debt exceeding national credit-card debt — crossing the $1 trillion point last year — and college becoming costlier each year, local students and their families are borrowing more and more to finance their futures.

People at every stage of their education — just starting college or in the midst of their undergraduate or graduate tenures — along with recent graduates, parents and retired adults are saddled with debt. They're neck-deep in what many call a broken system, which has devolved from a well-intentioned federal commitment into a $1 trillion problem.

The evolution of student loans

The birth of student loans can be traced back to 1840, when the first program was established at Harvard University.

But student loans started taking off nationwide during the second half of the 20th century. The 1958 National Defense Education Act — sparked in part by the Soviet launch of the first-ever satellite, Sputnik, and an ensuing concern that America was falling behind as a technology, math and science superpower — provided funding for educational programs, graduate fellowships, vocational-technical training and loans for college students interested in careers in science, math and foreign languages.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 marked a milestone in student-loan history, providing Pell Grants for lower-income students. It also increased the amount of federal money given to universities so they could boost their financial-aid offerings, created scholarships and allowed for loans with lower interest rates.

The act's Guaranteed Student Loan Program — which would later become the Stafford Loan Program — granted loans whose repayment students could defer while enrolled in school full time. These came in both subsidized and unsubsidized form: subsidized meaning the government paid the interest while the borrower was in school, and unsubsidized meaning the borrower was responsible for all interest accrued.

Later came the Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) — which all students must complete before applying for federal and state loans — and loan-based repayment plans.

Banks and nonprofit lenders entered the student-loan business in 1965, when the government began guaranteeing student loans under the Federal Family Education Loan Program. This opened the door for financial institutions such as Sallie Mae and Wells Fargo.

State financial-aid programs, such as Cal Grants — money funded by the state of California that does not have to be paid back — also became part of the mix, as well as private scholarships.

With set limits, well-tailored requirements and repayment options in place, federal and state loan programs began as well-intentioned programs designed to make sure people from all walks of life could pursue higher education.

Kathy Rose, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Menlo Park, said that when she attended San Jose State University in the 1970s, paying for college was that simple.

"It used to be government loans, and they weren't in it to make a profit," she said. "They were there to help you get through college."

Rose borrowed $900 to finance her undergraduate education, half of which was paid off by the government because after graduating, she became a teacher in a low-income school district. With monthly payments of about $40, she said, she paid off her debt in about a year.

"It was a piece of cake. We never even thought about it."

Today the picture is quite different.

A bad time for a student loan

As a full-time student in an intense art program, Rand DeCastro worked at most part-time while getting an education. His partner, Scott Schafer, who was working as an adviser at the University of Washington at the time, supported both of them, but DeCastro still had to take out loans to cover tuition as well as some living expenses.

"For a while we were relying on only his salary when I was full time in school," DeCastro said. "So we know what it's like to be poor, to be on food stamps, to be going to food banks to get food and getting stipends to go to the grocery store. It's really humbling and kind of embarrassing to be able-bodied people who are working and still can't make ends meet, to have to go to a food bank and get frozen peas and trying to figure out what we can do just to eat for the week. It's tough. It's really tough."

Schafer, now an assistant director of fellowships at Stanford University, has his own set of student loans. He graduated with a degree in sociology from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1996, owing about $30,000 in federal loans. He went on to graduate school to study psychology, taking out more loans to do so.

"Initially, I was grateful for the loans," Schafer said. "But, as the aggregate amounts piled up, I felt weary and dreadful each time I took one out. But, it felt like I needed to do it just to get the master's and increase my earning potential. So, the loans would lead to a degree that would enable me to make more money, in theory."

This theory disintegrated for many students after the recession hit in 2008, making it harder and harder to find well-paying jobs to begin paying back their debt.

"It's interesting," Schafer said. "The system is structured to encourage people to go to school and amass debt, but then there's not a lot of job prospects for people who are graduating. It's not setting people up for success."

Schafer's path through the job market and higher education was shaped by the economy, as he went back and forth between going to graduate school and finding jobs.

This cycle was driven by the ever-challenging pursuit of "what do I want to do," but for many feeling desperate about their student loans, returning to school has also become a means to escape debt.

"I've gone to school so many times partially to just be able not to pay my loans," DeCastro said. "It's sort of this vicious cycle where you're kind of bouncing checks in a way. You start a program, get the loan, pay off some of other bills and then that goes away, start a new program or start school again, get more loans to try to pay off previous loans or previous debt and it just keeps racking up and up and up.

"It's sort of milking the system, but when you're so far deep into it, there's really not much you can do except milk the system."

DeCastro graduated in 2010 and entered an unforgiving job market, especially for a luxury industry such as interior design. He got a job in sales at a furniture store but realized any hope of going beyond that was slim. He decided to go back to school for a web-design degree, choosing one of the few fields that was booming at the time.

And his web degree did pay off; he almost immediately got his current job, moved to Silicon Valley and began chipping away at his loans.

By the end of this year, DeCastro estimates he'll be paying $1,000 every month.

"That's $1,000 that I could be using to save up to buy a house or go on a trip or put away for a nest egg or something," said DeCastro, who is paying about 18 percent interest on his private loans.

"I'm not saying I deserve a free handout, but there's this tipping point where you're like, 'OK, get an education, go to school, be all you can be and get an education and you'll succeed,' and that's what we tell people to do, so we do all we can to make that happen."

The rising cost of a college education

College is more expensive than ever today, across the board. Between the 2000-01 and 2010-11 academic years, prices for undergraduate tuition, room and board at public institutions rose 42 percent, and prices at private not-for-profit institutions rose 31 percent, after adjustment for inflation, according to the federal National Center for Educational Statistics.

For the 2010-11 year, undergraduate tuition, room and board were estimated to be $13,600 at public institutions, $36,300 at private not-for-profit institutions, and $23,500 at private for-profit institutions.

"From my perspective, I think it's atrocious, quite frankly," said Shannon LeCompte, college success director at College Track, a nonprofit in East Palo Alto that helps students from poorer communities prepare for college and supports them while they are in school.

LeCompte said when she graduated from Santa Clara University in 2001, the annual ticket price (tuition, room and board) totaled $24,000. For the 2012-13 academic year, undergraduate tuition and fees plus room and board checked in at $52,848.

When considering what drives the rising cost of tuition in the United States, inflation — the natural increase in cost of living over time — does have to be taken into account.

But there is much more at play.

One reason college has become more expensive is that many schools, mostly private four-year universities and public research institutions, are spending more in order to be more competitive. They're spending on hiring and trying to keep the best professors, conducting research, expanding extracurricular programs, improving student services, and constructing new buildings and sports arenas — and students end up footing some of the bill.

A second reason, which plays out at the nation's public colleges and universities, is state budget cuts. As states slash higher-education funding, as California has in recent years, colleges raise tuition to make up for the difference. The burden thus shifts from the government to students and their families.

Furthermore, demand for college has only grown, which, as in any supply-and-demand model, has led to increased prices.

The problem of the rising costs of a college education has landed in the federal spotlight. President Barack Obama in August went on a two-day bus tour to bring attention to the issue of college affordability. During the tour, he proposed a government rating system that would judge schools based on their affordability using numbers such as the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, average debt accrued by graduates, graduation rates, average tuition and incomes of graduated students.

"Higher education cannot be a luxury," Obama told a crowd of students at the University of Buffalo in New York. "Every American family should be able to get it."

The rating system, which would go into effect in time for the 2015 school year, is billed as a means to help students and their families decide whether a certain school is worth the financial investment, help the government decide where to allocate financial aid and incentivize schools to reduce costs.

The system instantly sparked criticism and concern, however. Critics labeled it yet another subjective school-rating system that, as one college professor wrote in a New York Times letter to the editor, "fails to come to grips with the roots of the problem."

Though college has become more costly, students continue to believe that the education is worth the investment.

Eighty-six percent of students and 85 percent of parents strongly agree that college is an investment in the future (the highest numbers since 2010), according to Sallie Mae's annual survey, "How America Pays for College." A college degree still guarantees better financial security and economic mobility than a high school diploma or an incomplete college education.

Mounting debt and confusion

A record number of students are going into debt in order to finance their futures.

Fifty-seven percent of U.S. undergraduates used federal aid to pay for college in the 2011-12 academic year, up from 47 percent in 2007-08, according to a report released by the Education Department in August.

More government spending on financial aid is part of that equation. In 2005, new loans through the Federal Direct Loan Program totaled $55.8 billion; in 2009, $96.5 billion.

So there's more money in the system, and with the median household income still struggling to attain pre-recession levels, greater numbers of people are seeking aid.

"Unfortunately costs have risen at rates astronomically higher than standard family income," College Track's LeCompte said.

Lack of financial planning could be a contributor to the loan boom, said Karen Cooper, the financial-aid director at Stanford University.

"I haven't seen research to back this up, but I think another issue is that parents just haven't saved for college expenses," Cooper said. "Every year I see parents who are totally surprised by the realities of college costs, and they've done no planning so are left with loans as the best alternative."

The quest for a graduate education has also led students to take out private-bank loans once they max out their unsubsidized and other federal loans, LeCompte added.

Regardless of the reasons for mounting debt, it's safe to say that a large number of those taking out student loans don't know what they're getting into.

Cinthya Vieyra attended the private, four-year Notre Dame de Namur. When she took out her loans — subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans and a Perkins loan — she said she didn't look into different options for interest rates or when she would need to start payments.

"The information went in one ear and out the other. Being 18 at the time ... 'Why is it so difficult?'" she said she felt like asking. "Just give me the paperwork. I'll sign it (and) worry about it later."

Vieyra graduated in May with $36,352 in debt.

She said many undergraduates do not grasp the full scope of loans when they initially take them out: how much they're borrowing, who they're borrowing from, what different types of loans are, how they're going to pay their debt off.

Vieyra now has a full-time job at Beyond12, a national nonprofit that helps underserved students be successful in college. She lives at home with her mother to save on rent.

"When I look at it, I try to think of it as a good investment," she said of her debt.

What scares her, she said, is how much this number has grown, due to interest. She said she considered returning to school part-time in order to defer on her loans or discharging her debt by going into public service (under one government program, some full-time public service workers qualify for loan forgiveness). Instead, she chose a five-to-10 year repayment plan and is actively budgeting for her future.

"I'm trying to be mindful of rent and miscellaneous and my priority, which is paying off my debt," she said.

Confusion is common when it comes to loans, starting with the difference between loans and grants or scholarships, Le Compte said.

According to Nerd Wallet, a personal finance and credit-card comparison website, 60 percent of student-loan borrowers don't understand the difference between private and federal loans. Private bank loans have higher limits but also higher interest rates that could hurt in the long run.

"I didn't know the difference (between different types of loans)," Patricia Zeider said. "I didn't know anything until the end" of college. That's when she was required to do exit counseling.

Exit counseling is a graduation requirement at many colleges. It's also a federal-loan safeguard: Students must do entrance counseling before taking out a loan so they understand what they're getting into and exit counseling afterward, so they can figure out repayment options and plan for their future. Even then, the information can be difficult to absorb.

Zeider said her exit counseling was an online program that reminded her of clicking through traffic school.

Was it helpful?

"No. I don't think I realized what it was really like until I had to start paying it," she said.

Betting on their futures

Some students who take out loans to fund their education say it makes sense to do so, even if they don't fully grasp the particulars.

Sean and Antwon Chatmon — twin brothers from East Palo Alto in their senior years at Whittier College in southern California — plan on getting master's degrees before returning to East Palo Alto to open a combination massage therapy and family/marriage therapy practice. They expect their earnings will more than pay back their student loans.

"I'm not too worried about it," Sean said. "I feel everything will work out. I'll get a career that I can start paying back with."

Each borrowed about $20,000 a year from Wells Fargo to finance his undergraduate education. Sean said the one downside is that he feels bad that it's bringing down their parents' credit as loan cosigners.

"They were like: 'You know, it's going to be expensive. But at least you'll be getting out in four years,'" Sean said his parents told them. "If we went to a state school it would have been more impacted, and we probably wouldn't be graduating this year.

"And they'd rather us get out in time and then either go on with education or get a career where we can start paying them back. As far as that, I'm not really too worried about it. I think I have like $90,000 in debt. I added it up earlier this summer."

Both brothers plan to attend Palo Alto University for their master's degrees, which will cost around $20,000 per year. They're on their own paying for that, their parents have told them.

Antwon is not worried either. He mentioned that he saw a piece on the Suze Orman Show (Orman is a self-proclaimed personal-finance guru) about a 10-year government loan-forgiveness program through public service.

He said he and his brother will look into getting their loans forgiven that way, but if not, the plan is to "definitely continue education, try to get a pretty high-paying job that I love where I can help people and also pay back my loans."

This mentality is common for students pursuing careers in fields such as medicine or engineering. The debt is worth it when there's a guarantee that there will be a for-sure return on the investment, they say.

"I like to use the engineering masters student as an example," Stanford's Cooper said. "They're going to have good jobs when they're done so they can afford to take on this debt. And that's what they want to do anyway; that's why they're here."

Xio Pinto, a Palo Alto native currently at Albany Medical College, is confident she'll be able to pay off an eventual estimated $200,000 debt because she'll be able to secure a high-paying job.

"I was talking with some of my friends about finances, and at a certain point someone just said, 'Well, what's another $5,000 in loans anyway?'" she wrote in an email. "It was rather shocking to realize that they were right. For my profession, you have to know that you're going to go into a load of debt and trust that you're going to pay it off eventually."

Pinto's parents — who she said also struggled with loans, her father taking 35 years to pay off his medical-school debt — pay for her living expenses and some of her tuition, but the rest she has financed with federal subsidized loans.

Regardless of the eventual return on her and her parents' investment, borrowing money still weighs heavily on Pinto.

"It's kind of like, 'Well, I'm up (a) creek, but I think I'm going to find a paddle. ... In, like, three years I'm going to have a paddle to start to get out of this mess,'" she said. "And until then you just kind of have to go with it."

What's the fix?

As the problem has grown, solutions in various sectors, from government to entrepreneurial, have emerged.

Numerous start-ups are trying to address the debt problem in innovative ways, such as San Francisco-based ReadyForZero, which is an online space where users can manage all of their debt. Free of charge, the company pulls together all of a user's financial information — credit card debt, student loans, income, etc. — and creates a financial plan based on his or her ability to pay. For a premium of $7 a month, users can use ReadyForZero to schedule and make payments on their loans.

ReadyForZero's "fastest growing segment" is student-loan debt — $250 million out of about $1 billion total, said co-founder Rod Ebrahimi. He said that's because there is a "need for people to just figure it out" but also because ReadyForZero's target audience is people in their 20s and 30s, an age where one's debt is likely to be from student loans.

The idea for ReadyForZero was inspired by Ebrahimi's girlfriend, who one day asked him and his tech friends: "Where do I go to manage all my debt?"

"And we had no answer," Ebrahimi said. So they created the website, which tracks a user's payment progress, total debt, next steps to take, credit score and more.

"I know it seems very small, but just seeing (her debt) visually going down" helped, he said. "And we provide that. She was in the six-figure range in total, so just seeing that number didn't motivate her to pay it down. (She) just felt like, 'I can't do it.' ReadyForZero made it a little more tangible: 'This payment will save you this much in this much time'; 'make an extra payment'; or 'set up a recurring payment.'"

In addition to working on debt management, educational entrepreneurs are tackling the costs of higher education. There's already been a surge in less-costly methods of learning, especially online education. MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are popping up everywhere, from Harvard to San Jose State University. Foregoing the need for bricks and mortar, MOOCs are battling higher education's chronic issues of affordability and accessibility by harnessing market forces.

On the government front, in addition to Obama's college-ranking system, politicians are targeting the loan problem with legislation. State Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, who represents Fremont and areas south of San Jose, introduced a "Student Bill of Rights" in February. The legislative package includes four bills designed to more effectively address the student-debt burden.

AB 391 would require the California Department of Education to add curriculum for grades seven through 12 to help students better understand economics and personal finances — including paying for postsecondary education. The bill was heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee in April and is still in committee process.

AB 534, dubbed the "Know Before You Owe" Act, would ensure that all students taking out loans, whether they are federal or private, receive the same counseling. It would require entrance and exit counseling for students who take out private loans.

AB 233 would prevent wage garnishment for federal student loans, which is when an employer is required by court order to withhold a person's earnings in order to force a debt payment. It also encourages lenders to work with students to find manageable repayment plans. The bill was read in the Senate Judiciary Committee in June and is slated for a third reading.

AJR 11, a joint resolution known as the "Financial Fresh Start Resolution of 2013," urges Obama and the Congress to make federal reforms that would allow private student-loan debt to be discharged via bankruptcy. The bill was filed with the California Secretary of State on Sept. 9.

Change could also come in the form of revisions to the 1965 Higher Education Act, which is set to expire at the end of this year. Last reauthorized in 2008 after five years of temporary extensions, Congress will be forced to rewrite the act, but that is likely to be far off, Cooper said.

"If I had to guess, I would say it's probably going to come piecemeal. I can't imagine this Congress being able to do it all at once."

But people have begun calling for change, she said, proposing simplifying loans programs by collapsing them into fewer programs, offering fewer subsidized loan options, placing more emphasis on making the repayment side of things easier.

Schafer and DeCastro have written many letters to elected officials — Obama, U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer — urging them to consider various alternatives for student-loan reform, such as consolidation.

Loan consolidation centralizes all of a borrower's loans into one bill, can lower his or her monthly payments by allowing for extended repayment periods (up to 30 years, during which interest still accrues) and might allow for switching from a variable to fixed interest rate.

Schafer was able to consolidate all of his federal loans, but DeCastro, with federal and private loans coming in with different interest rates, cannot consolidate his debt.

"I'm happy to pay back my loans, but the interest is just killing me," DeCastro said. "My private loans are at 18 or 19 percent interest. So it would be nice to be able to consolidate my public loans or federal loans into one and have just one payment go out every month. I have every intention of paying back my loans, but there needs to be some way to make that happen."

They've received stockpile responses, letters saying, "I'm very much into helping students out, which is why I'm all for lowering federal loan interest rates."

But that's not enough, DeCastro and Schafer said.

"There are a lot of people who take out private loans in addition to federal loans," Schafer said. "What they need to do is open up ... the federal programs to consolidate private loans. They also need to re-examine loan-forgiveness issues for people who are approaching retirement age and that kind of thing."

He added that at the rate he's going, he'll definitely be retired and still paying off his total student-loan debt, which, with compounding interest, has grown from a principal of $128,000 to $150,000.

"I'm 42 now, and I can't afford to make the full time (payments). ... If I did the full-time regular payment plan, it would probably be 10 to 20 years, but the payments would probably be around $1,300 a month, which is not — unless I have a huge change in my income — that's not realistic.

"I guess we could move back in with our parents," he said, laughing sarcastically. "It's a challenge."

Read more for a primer on the types of student loans.==

A Q&A about student loans has been posted here.


Like this comment
Posted by Barbara
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 20, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Our educational system is really messed up. Every high school child is now encouraged to "go to college", whereas in my day (40 years ago), a whole lot of kids took the technical track to careers in automotive, construction, etc. Those are respectable professions and lead to happy lifestyles, but these days it seems everyone thinks their child is "too good" for that. At least here on the Peninsula, and probably elsewhere. It's a pity. It hurts society by denying us good tradesmen, and it hurts the kids who were never academic to begin with, but feel obligated to go to college anyway. What's the point of that? It also harms the self-esteem of kids who are not academically inclined.

How do we fix this?

Like this comment
Posted by paly parent
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 20, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Barbara - the problem is not just that high school students are encouraged to "go to college" it is also that, at least in this area, there aren't really other tracks available to them, nor do we teach them anything is high school that isn't "college prep".

Like this comment
Posted by Arnold Ziffel
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 20, 2013 at 3:44 pm

No longer is every HS kid told to go to college. It isn't possible for many now.

This debt is a national shame.

Only in America.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 20, 2013 at 8:59 pm

Agree that the cost of college is shameful and the amount of debt is disastrous for the kids, especially those who have worked so hard to get to college, and can't possibly imagine not going - its almost like anything goes to make it happen. But I do have a couple problems with the article.. Cultural anthropology? And semester studying abroad? A nicer apartment off campus? It sounds like this particular person made some choices, not so practical, and not so economical, and frankly a little frivolous, especially for someone now concerned about the debt.. I'm not terribly sympathetic in that first case. This does not change the fact that the college debt problem is a huge problem in general.

Like this comment
Posted by Catherine Crystal Foster
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 20, 2013 at 9:10 pm

The vast majority of jobs in the next decade will require a college degree, so making college graduation possible and affordable to everyone in our community is more important than ever. That's why the nonprofit organization I lead, The Peninsula College Fund, provides 1-1 mentoring throughout college and workshops on budgeting and financial literacy to all of the local, low-income college students we serve. If you believe in the value of a college education and are as troubled as I was to read this article, please join us in helping to make college more affordable, and support promising young people in achieving their dreams.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 20, 2013 at 9:49 pm

@Catherine Crystal Foster - Sounds like a noble but misguided cause. It's a dubious claim that the vast majority of jobs will require a college degree, but even if it true, degree inflation is one of the primary reasons. Better to stop pushing more and more kids into college that would be better served with vocational training.

Like this comment
Posted by American tragedy
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 21, 2013 at 10:17 am

The US is one of only five nations in the world that does not pay for every qualified student to get an undergraduate degree. The other four are all in Africa! How dated, archaic, and short-sighted is that.

Worse yet, many European and Asian countries will pay for qualified students to attend graduate school, too.

Thus, the death of the American Dream ( it has gone to Finland).

Like this comment
Posted by paly parent
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 21, 2013 at 10:22 am

@American Tragedy - "The US is one of only five nations in the world that does not pay for every qualified student to get an undergraduate degree." The key word their is "qualified" and many other countries provide non-university education also. In Germany, the people that attend the "trade" schools often make more than the University grads.

We need to expand out options for post high school graduation AND make college affordable for those who should be choosing that route (Thanks Catherine Foster!)

Like this comment
Posted by People-Need-Education-More-Than-They-Need-College
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 21, 2013 at 10:29 am

> The vast majority of jobs in the next decade will
> require a college degree

This may not be true. Certainly where white collar jobs are concerned, but what about jobs that are traditionally blue collar? Do you really think that store clerks, or garbage collectors, will need 4-6 years of higher education?

What is true is that jobs in the future may require specialized training that very well might not be provided by our higher education system, as it currently operates. Rather than spending four years sitting in classes listening to academics of no particular skill set rattling on about this, that, and the other--students might well be looking at spending their time learning skills, like computer programming, technology basics, and finance.

Degrees in English, History, and the so-called social sciences will not be of much value in the future, just as they are not of much value today.

Like this comment
Posted by American Tragedy
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 21, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Most med school students graduate with millions of dollars in debt, something that they probably could not pay off if they live to be 100.

It just isn't fair. Nor is it fair that students from outside the US get priority at the UCs, just because they have to pay more on tuition. The UCs were created just for California students, and to this day they are supposed to give priority in admissions to California students, but they no longer do it because it is no longer economically feasible, they say.

I hope they like it when the " ruling class" is made up of non-citizens who make more money and are better educated than citizens.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 21, 2013 at 9:37 pm

@American tragedy - A far lower percentage of Finns have a bachelors degree than Americans. If the Finnish dream you want is to track kids away from college into vocational schools starting in high school, then I might agree. If you just want an excuse to throw more money after wasted college degrees, then don't look to Finland for justification.

Like this comment
Posted by Arnold Ziffel
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 21, 2013 at 9:59 pm

People-Need-Education - "Degrees in English, History, and the so-called social sciences will not be of much value in the future, just as they are not of much value today."

You are wrong. English degrees are more demand than you state. You are just repeating old canards. While nothing beats the tried and true combo of an engineering degree paired up with an MBA, when the gee-whiz types invent something, it's the English major who will effectively communicate that news to the world.

From Forbes: "After computer science, the next most in-demand major is the more general sciences, followed by liberal arts, communications, and lastly, agriculture and natural resources.

NACE slices and dices its survey data into multiple categories. Though the demand for business, engineering and computer science majors seems highly predictable, I’m intrigued by a breakdown NACE did of liberal arts degrees by demand. Political science/government ranked at the top, followed by psychology, English, sociology and finally, and to me somewhat sadly, history."

Like this comment
Posted by People-Need-Education-More-Than-They-Need-College
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 22, 2013 at 9:24 am

> you’re wrong!

Try googling “worst college degrees” and a list of suggestions for that honor will appear.

Among them:

Web Link

9. English. As a major, this is the road more traveled by, with not nearly enough writing, teaching, publishing or journalism jobs for all the students who graduate with a yen for the written word. It doesn’t help that many media fields have been upended by the digital revolution


Web Link

Web Link

No. 10: English Language And Literature
Unemployment rate for recent grads: 9.2%
Median earnings for recent grads: $32,000

Unemployment rate for experienced grads: 6.2%
Median earnings for experienced grads: $52,000

You’re welcome to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 22, 2013 at 9:44 am

No idea on how useful an English degree is in terms of future employment, but I do think we are producing a nation of young professionals who are unable to write well. The fact that textspeak, spell and grammar checks are being used so much is evident in so much poor editing and writing in the published and written material I read on an almost daily basis shows that we are not teaching the English language well enough. The ones that come to mind are pedal/peddle, affect/effect, "would of" instead of "would have", allowed/aloud, principle/principal. From books, magazine articles, blogs and even printed signs, the English language is being allowed to deteriorate at a rate of knots.

High school English (where I see what is being taught better than at the college level) has some poor choices when it comes to well written work apart from the fact that so much of it is very depressing subject matter. Slang and what I call dialectspeak is so common that it must be hard for the students to discern between correct English and bad. I hope they do a better job in college classes!

In my opinion, an English degree, even if it is only a minor, should be applauded as the owner may be able to communicate and correspond well in a subsequent profession.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 22, 2013 at 9:47 am

Ooops, even though I reread my post for editing before hitting submit, I see I have made a long roll on sentence which became immediately evident on the final submission which wasn't quite as easy to see on the draft version. My apologies.

A definite example of what I am talking about.

Like this comment
Posted by People-Need-Education-More-Than-They-Need-College
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 22, 2013 at 10:28 am

> In my opinion, an English degree, even if it is only a minor,
> should be applauded as the owner may be able to communicate
> and correspond well in a subsequent profession.

Good communications skills are certainly something that we all should possess—regardless of the area of specialty we pursue during higher education. These skills take a very long time to teach, and much work to master. As such, the training should start very early in life.

Writing skills, which also require a parallel development of something called “critical thinking”, are not easily taught. People interested in education reform would be well advised to recognize that the traditional approach of teaching “English” has failed, and the whole are of reading/writing/thinking/communicating needs to be rethought.

As to pursing an English major in college, the following link offers a quick look at the topics Seton Hall offers its students taking this path:

Web Link

Hard to see how much of this education would be all that useful in a Silicon Valley start-up, a farm in America’s heartland, or in a factory, wherever it’s located.

Like this comment
Posted by paly parent
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 22, 2013 at 11:12 am

Having sent two kids thru PAUSD, I would say that the English classes focus on reading and analyzing literature (usually pretty depressing books at that) and very little on writing. Unless you get a teacher that likes to teach writing skills, you have to teach yourself. The one area that my kids were the least prepared for in college was researching and writing papers.

Like this comment
Posted by terrified
a resident of Southgate
on Sep 22, 2013 at 2:30 pm

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by pamom
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 23, 2013 at 12:41 pm

I attended a German university and paid only about $200 a semester! And that's as a foreigner. Of course, there were no recreational centers -- no swimming pools, racquet ball courts, etc., and the library was much, much smaller with fewer open hours. No football fields (although for soccer yes, but no stadium). Amenities were far fewer, classes met less often, and there were fewer offerings than at one of our universities.

Our universities are like elite resorts which has something to do with the rising costs.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 23, 2013 at 1:34 pm


Why would you expect football fields (although for soccer yes, but no stadium)? Germans don't play American football, but do play soccer. The German word for soccer is football!

You should know this if you have lived in Germany.

But I agree and like the rest of your post.

Like this comment
Posted by pamom
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 23, 2013 at 2:30 pm

@Resident -- Sorry my message wasn't more explicit -- it's not about expecting football fields, it's just an example of the amenities at a German University, which are far fewer than at an American one. I mentioned no stadium because that is another huge cost (although one could argue that American college football brings in big bucks) but it's not just football, American colleges support all kinds of sports -- my college even had a beautiful ice skating rink. And it was great, and as far as sports go, it's good to encourage exercise and a healthy lifestyle, but these amenities cost a lot of money. I'm wondering how the operating costs of a German Uni compare to an Ami one.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 23, 2013 at 3:12 pm

@Arnold Ziffel I’m intrigued by a breakdown NACE did of liberal arts degrees by demand. Political science/government ranked at the top, followed by psychology, English, sociology and finally, and to me somewhat sadly, history.

And that's why we are condemned to repeat it.

I was one of those deluded souls who not only wanted to be an English major, but persisted in his folly to earn a PhD in the subject from the University of Florida. Along the way, I was aided by the anti-Communist hysteria of the late Ike administation, when Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which aimed to train science teachers so that the Russkies wouldn't be able to boast of their scientific accomplishments following Sputnik. A full fellowship grant (not a loan; you didn't have to pay it back) paid for tuition, books, AND a stipend. Because some crumbs were allocated for Liberal Arts types like me, the English Dept at UF graciously gave me the last year of a grant that some fool resigned before leaving school. Let me tell you it was a street ride for that year. I even took a full course load in the summer, which speeded up my progress toward an MA on my way to the PhD. When President Obama said, "You didn't build that," meaning you didn't accomplish everything on your own, I could only say, "Amen" because I'm not an ungrateful churl.

Like this comment
Posted by ralphc
a resident of The Greenhouse
on Sep 24, 2013 at 3:21 pm

ralphc is a registered user.

What a depressing collection of posts. They reflect a sense of panic that too many are seeking too few "chairs" as the U.S. jobs market "music" stops. I have no idea where jobs will be for all Americans who need and will need work (including my grandkids now in or creeping toward their teens). Why argue about whether -- or which type of -- college education is needed in the midst of a gigantic jobs game of "musical chairs".
Better, let's get to the root of the problem, the need for national policy to accomplish long-term full employment. If adequate employment opportunity existed, argument about the necessity or focus of college wouldn't matter.

Like this comment
Posted by People-Need-Education-More-Than-They-Need-College
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 24, 2013 at 4:40 pm

AB 955 has passed the the two houses, and is headed to the Gov. Desk.

Web Link

Authored by Assemblymember Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, the bill would allow community college districts to cover the cost of offering more extension courses by raising tuition for in-state residents from an average of $46 per unit to around $200 per unit. Last Monday, the bill was passed in the California Assembly.

There are too many free-loaders in the Community Colleges. This bill will force students to take courses that they need, and not just dabble in areas that might be interesting, or help to waste a little time.

Community Colleges also need to look at more on-line courses to reduce costs, and provide remedial courses, like English, Math, and Art.

Like this comment
Posted by jobs are Job 1
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 24, 2013 at 4:59 pm

Educate Americans.
Create jobs jobs and more jobs. Jobs = revenue = ability to pay down deficit

Education = a chance for America to compete in the global economy

Without both, we will soon be a third world nation, unable to consume the way we used to.

Like this comment
Posted by maguro_01
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 24, 2013 at 8:50 pm

The ideas driving soaring costs seem to be two fold:

First is rationing education by costs - a really bad idea since talent and intelligence is not rationed by family income. Doing that drops most of the talent in any generation and will ultimately destabilize the society. Education tends to co-op the smartest people.

What on earth, as an example, is the projected economic use of such huge numbers of undergrad psychology and journalism majors? Journalism may be a good minor with history, economics, history of science, criminology, etc, but is not a major. Political correctness is giving us large numbers of graduates whose only employment is likely to be in government, hopefully not a growth area.

In New York City, generations of immigrant students went to NYU and CCNY. Both were commuter schools, were easy to get into but hard to stay in, and the tuition was zero. When their standards disappeared, so did that kind of taxpayer support. Remember reading about the WWII GI Bill? Free tuition and books, etc, at universities including Harvard and so on. That was some of the best money and investment the US government ever made. The majority of those students must have been first generation in college from their families.

The idea that a four year degree is an entitlement and the definition of middle class is nonsense.

Second, the tuition and crushing loans may partly be there to nail down the students. They start out with high debts and are to put their faces down and get in harness immediately and for life. The mechanisms of credit and debt are the basic means of social control across our society. Money runs our politics and now people from the beginning of the arc of their lives. Debtors take fewer risks.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 24, 2013 at 8:56 pm

I know of international students who went back to their countries owing our government and universities tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. I know of one who returned to the US after 10 years, presumably using a different name on his passport although he resumed using his American name with friends and workers.
I felt this was so unfair; as I and others worked hard to repay our loans over a 10 year span.
There was a time when federal student loan were about 7-9% and no tax deduction was allowed on the interest

Like this comment
Posted by maguro_01
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 24, 2013 at 9:29 pm

Something else worth mentioning in this context -

Corporations, including Facebook, HP, etc, have lobbied and gotten included in recent immigration bills in Congress millions of new visa workers over years even though there is no evidence of labor shortages in the US. They are really determined to break US labor markets even more than they are these days. The millions are from high tech to no tech. The tech companies are almost all global and lobbying their global, not American, interests.

They include over 200,000 HI-B's a year AFAIK. Add up all the mainly tech visa worker programs including L-1's and you get close to a quarter million a year. With everyone so distracted by "amnesty" the new visa workers aren't on the radar.

Note how business doesn't support the Green Card clipped to an MS degree much. That's because such workers are just in the labor market along with everyone else - they can leave and get another job readily. H1-B workers are indentured, however, and US workers or Green Card holders can't compete with indenture. H1-B's are low balled too, but you only see that by looking at hours worked, not necessarily their salaries.

It is absolutely a privilege to brain-drain the world. We get fine colleagues and good neighbors out of it. But, as with anything lobbied out of Washington, the devil is in the details. Such large numbers mean average tech workers and may be actually supply limited. They also wipe US tech grads off the map. Further, the "Cloud" will even move most IT tech work offshore. So if the additional worker programs are passed, a good bet, it may be unwise for US citizens to major in STEM at all. Of course, corporations will then complain that Americans are all dolts again and that they need more workers still - it's a downwards spiral.

Why would US students go to the trouble of a tech degree and not get a job or get a career that only lasts 10 to 15 years, tops, and then disqualify them from further work? There's little talk of a technical track any more because there isn't one. Companies that don't behave in this way should be mentioned more in the press here - but not in response to HR people interviews. US tech grads should work for smaller companies when possible.

We take for granted our Pay-To-Play political system which is progressively getting worse. That system means that we are increasingly mice in the woodwork and will be less and less competitive in the world with time.

Like this comment
Posted by maguro_01
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 24, 2013 at 10:10 pm

@People-Need-Education-More-Than-They-Need-College - "There are too many free-loaders in the Community Colleges. This bill will force students to take courses that they need, and not just dabble in areas that might be interesting, or help to waste a little time."

This was really vicious. If there is waste in the offerings or too low standards, etc, that can and should be fixed. Recreational courses should pay for themselves.

However, rationing even JC's by money is intended to freeze out people stratified by family income. That just promotes the idea of economic classes, popular on the right these days. It also freezes out the majority of possibly talented students from the society which is destabilizing in the long run.

If you need cheap grass cutters, push back from the keyboard, go outdoors, and do it yourself. It will be physically healthy for you. You know, hiring people because you can't do something, are growing in scale, or just don't have the time is one thing. Hiring people because you think it's beneath you to do what they are to do means that you need, for the good of your soul, to go rod out a sewer line.

I'd point out too, that California's skipping on real education means that the next generation will be less productive. That means they will be less inclined to support you in your old age. A little cautionary for would be Masters of the Universe.

Like this comment
Posted by People-Need-Education-More-Than-They-Need-College
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 25, 2013 at 9:03 am

This issue of graduates of higher education not being able to find employment is not uniquely an American phenomenon, as Japan is finding out--
Japan losing competitive edge due to poor practical training, expert warns:
Web Link

DALIAN, CHINA – There may be many unemployed young people in Japan, but there are also a lot of companies that can’t fill their vacancies due to a shortage of talented applicants, Darryl Green, president of major staffing and workforce solution service company ManpowerGroup, said in a recent interview.
Warning about Japan’s labor market, Green told The Japan Times there are plenty of openings for technical positions in Japan, such as engineers and in sales, but most people who have recently graduated from Japanese universities have no practical skills to qualify for those jobs.
“The needs of corporate Japan are not met by the young people that are being produced by Japanese education and society,” Green said, adding that unless Japan acts now to address these problems, it’s competitive edge will continue to erode.

In both the US, and Japan, the education system seems to have become detached from the general economy. Why? Aren't the people hired as educators the smartest in the world? Why is it they seem to have turned their backs on the world that pays their salaries, and will hire their graduates? What makes these people (college educators) lose interest in their country's future, as it seems they have by not providing their students the education needed to survive in the real world.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Sep 25, 2013 at 5:06 pm

Time for Silicon Valley tech companies to step up to the plate and fund new scholarships and loan programs for local kids who cannot afford higher education.

New support programs at state universities and colleges, and other colleges in the area would be good philanthropy and a good investment. (Larry Ellison -- one person who should step up to the plate, but there are dozens of others).

How many writers on this blog who say college isn't necessary and telling their own kids the same thing?

There could be some great scientists, authors, artists, and professors among the lower income folks who cannot afford college.

Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of another community
on Sep 26, 2013 at 6:19 am

"The system is structured to encourage people to go to school and amass debt,"

Now you've got it!

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of College Terrace

on Jun 5, 2017 at 3:37 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Burger chain Shake Shack to open in Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 15 comments | 3,890 views

Eat, Surf, Love
By Laura Stec | 4 comments | 1,261 views

The Cost of Service
By Aldis Petriceks | 1 comment | 884 views

One-on-one time
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 282 views