Avoiding college debt before you get to college

Heading Off College Debt Early

by Robert R. Neuman, PhD

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My Story: Senior Year

For more than 25 years, I was a dean of academic advising at a major university. Each year, I saw first-hand that more and more students were less and less prepared to cope with the academic demands of college. The result? Most fail to graduate on time with only about 35% earn a typical bachelor's degree in four years.

What You Should Know

Few have acknowledged this catastrophe, so it worsens each year. Yet the financial consequences of added semesters for families, students, and the country are enormous. Lately, however, this educational crisis has gotten some national attention.

A recent study by The American Institutes for Research shows late graduations cost the nation $4.5 billion dollars a year in lost income and lost taxes.

"Occupy Wall Street" highlighted student debt. It approaches $1 trillion dollars from federal financial-aid programs, with more and more students defaulting on those loans.

Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce finds that in fewer than ten years, the number of college graduates will fall far short of available jobs.

In terms of number of college degrees, the US has dropped from the top of the list to 12th place.

The Causes

Can we identify the reasons for students who graduate late or not at all? Consider these facts.

Due to a complicated mix of factors, 48% of college-bound high school students graduate with A averages. Nearly 50% graduate with B averages.

Yet college-bound high school students are studying fewer hours than ever. 65% study fewer than six hours a week. Study time declines yearly. Teens learn for the moment, pass the test, and then forget the material almost immediately. Rewarded with great grades, students think they're "learning."

Having studied so little in high school and gotten good grades, as college students, they are "shell-shocked" by the effort required of them.

Too many students haven't thought ahead. They start college clueless about a major field of study or specific degree program. As a result, early on they take courses that may not count toward the major they eventually select. Delaying the decision adds semesters.

More Costly Bad News

Colleges and universities are spending millions more each year offering remedial courses and services to address student academic deficiencies in all traditional academic areas, even among students who have met admissions standards.

Because students are unprepared to handle college work, "normal" graduation rates are now atypical. Currently, only 60% of college students have graduated after six years. The remaining 40% take longer or don't graduate at all.

Education in our country is not just as a fragile edifice, but a crumbling one, involving four elements. No one element is solely to blame. They work in concert to set the stage for college "unreadiness." Consider how it works.

Four Elements

First, teens are "too busy" with activities and cyber distractions to squeeze study time into their days. Second, parents don't set standards for study time at home and uphold them, emphasizing their importance in the face of other scheduled events. Third, without parent backing, schools cannot set high enough standards for academic achievement. Consequently, teachers aim their instruction toward the lowest level of student accomplishment in their classrooms, rather than the highest.


For families - Change in education moves at the rate of a glacier. So to change students' efforts in preparing for college and succeeding once there, parents should take matters in their own hands, offering middle/high school students strong incentives to succeed academically as teens and as college students. Reward them for "effort," not grades. In other words, reward them for time spent on uninterrupted study and academic work.

I think the incentive should be monetary and "strong enough" to change student behavior. After all, paying students early to study and become good students will be vastly cheaper than paying for extra college semesters. Would you go to work if you didn't get paid? Yet we expect our students to study because "it's the right thing to do." Moreover, if you pay your teens enough to study, they won't squander study time flipping burgers to earn spending money.

For schools - Monetary rewards extend to the other two elements, too. High schools should compete for federal grants for graduating accomplished students. Some schools already do. Colleges should reward students yearly by increasing scholarship money for achieving consistently excellent grades and staying on track for on-time graduation.

Nurturing a study ethic through rewards will more than pay for itself. Being smart isn't enough. Studying? That succeeds.

Dr. Neuman's book Are You Really Ready for College?: A College Dean's 12 Secrets for Success - what high school students don't know is available only online. You can order the book at GetCollegeSmart.com or at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online book sellers. Written especially for teens, the book is an "active" book, using questionnaires, student stories, checklists, quick tips, and tactics. Parents can use the book as a guide to helping students get ready for college.

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