College Counselors: How Much Debt?

Via reader Tracy B, an interesting blog by Hamilton Nolan:

To briefly recap: America is currently in a student loan bubble, holding an unimaginably huge amount of student debt, as delinquency of loan payments swells, and even the well-off question whether they can afford college. It would seem, then, rather obvious that student loan debt is too big. Surprise: the people who control the higher education spigot—college admissions directors—disagree!

A new Inside Higher Ed survey of college admissions counselors of all sorts asked: What do you consider a "reasonable debt level" for a student to have, for four years in school? Fort two percent said $20k-$30k, and 17% said $30K-$40K, meaning that a vast majority of college admissions directors are perfectly comfortable with you coming out of their school with between $20k and $40K worth of debt.

Whether you believe that is problematic or not probably correlates with both your income and your faith in our economy to provide stable, well-paying jobs to new college graduates. As a statement of The New Normal, yes, it is problematic.

Read the Gawker comments, too. Fascinating.

Begs the question for high school college counselors, as well as teachers and leaders: how much debt are we comfortable advising kids to take on?

My sense is that the no excuses charters have not created clear recommendations here. But please comment if your school does suggest a specific ceiling -- 10k, 30k, 50k, 70k, etc.

We've been more in this camp: "College has huge ROI compared to no college, so almost any amount of debt is defensible." Why do we say that?

1. In part, that's because many of us worker bees (the adults who work in these schools) went to private colleges (and then grad schools), and took out big loans ourselves. Pru and I are still paying ours. We're in our 40s. (Young 40s!) It worked for us to take big loans, why not others?

2. In part, that's because this macro attention to the higher ed bubble is fairly new. The attention spike is driven by the economic downturn of 2008, when recent grads struggled to get jobs. Worse, college grads from poor families struggle the most, because they have the least social capital -- friends and family who are "connected."

3. In part, that's because the least expensive option -- community college for 2 years, then state college for 2 years -- is hard to recommend to our seniors. Community colleges generally have so few folks ever earn a B.A.

4. In part, it's because the unifying power of "College Or Bust" message, particularly for a group of inner-city kids and families -- helps us avoid the tracking trap (while creating new challenges).

But whatever the causes, college prep schools should do a tough re-think of exactly what we're recommending to our seniors -- in terms of college cost, and what is acceptable debt.