This past weekend, the New York Times posted a very long but interesting look at the growing debt being accumulated by recent college graduates, as well as those who dropout. It’s a good overview that touches on some of the major problems, including deceptive advertising (aka recruiting) and the somewhat shady for-profit college industry.

However, I was struck by a comment made by one member of the state House of Representatives in Ohio, who also happens to be a current college student with lots of loans: “students need to understand that attending college is not an entitlement”.

Maybe not. But if you look at it through the eyes of most high school students and their parents, we’ve made college attendance something of a societal inevitability.

First you have politicians from the president on down setting increased college attendance and graduation as vital to rebuilding the nation’s economic structure. It’s a matter of world competition! The Obama administration has established a goal to make the United States “first among developed nations in college completion”. Even many of those legislators voting to cut support to both students and schools also support the same argument.

Then there is the culture and structure of our K12 schools where, at least in this area, the message is drilled into the kids almost from the first day of Kindergarten that the only goal worth pursuing after graduation is college. Almost everyone gets funneled into a “college prep” schedule with no consideration for any other post-high school path, and certainly little for the interests and needs of the individual.

So, what’s the choice? Skip college and miss getting that “good job” (not to mention being considered a “failure” by the popular culture) or go and be saddled with a huge debt, even if you “settle” for a state school.

If we as a society really believe that a college degree is something that will benefit both the country in the long run and almost every high school graduate, then we have an obligation to cover the fundamental costs. You cannot reconcile a societal norm of every kid going to college while slashing the support to make that happen. 

Of course, as with everything else we think is important, that’s going to take money. Not to mention some major restructuring in the way that colleges and universities do business (and higher education is very much a business), starting with separating out the stuff that has little to do with getting a good education (high profile athletic programs that are little more than pro farm teams leap to mind first).

But if “college for all” is just political talk, if our “leaders” are not willing to make some hard budget choices to make it happen, then let’s stop feeding that illusion to our kids. Instead, provide students with multiple options and help them find other, less expensive and possibly more satisfying, avenues to follow after high school graduation.

Actually, that second option is a excellent one anyway.