Over past month or so, have been thinking a lot about the US student debt issue (US student debt balloons past $1.5tn; 74% of all debt owed by US 25–34 year old’s is student debt, up from 10% in 1989).
Apart from the sheer size of this debt obligation (which, like any type of debt, will obviously be a great source of emotional and financial strain on an entire generation), what worries me most is that the end-product that people have leveraged themselves for, will end up continuously declining in value over coming decades.
For the foreseeable future (say next 5-10 years), a good-quality university degree will still, broadly speaking, continue to be a relevant filter for majority of jobs out there. However, once you start looking beyond next 10 years, it’s hard to believe that this will continue to be the case.
Students are taking on debt, essentially to get the following 3 elements from a university:
- ‘Foundation’ knowledge & skills — given the pace at which the working machinery of this world is changing, essentially driven by technologies whose future impact is hard to predict even for the most informed and privileged (VCs, large tech company execs, policy makers etc.), it’s hard to see a university curriculum keeping pace with these rapid changes. Perhaps, it will require almost a Just-In-Time approach from both the skill givers and receivers, which a static education paradigm like the present university system will struggle with. Continuous training, perpetually-upgraded skilling methods and a vocational approach will become vastly more important. While I am painting this in broad strokes, you get the drift!
- Networks — while there is merit in having a common university bond that helps set up a base network, the reality is that as life goes on, other networks (the companies you work for, your neighborhood, the community initiatives you support etc.) continuously get added and their summation becomes far more important than just your university networks. Carrying forward the earlier thought of rapid tech-driven change, the ‘relevancy’ of your networks will also evolve quickly. For instance, as a design under-grad, you might know lot of other designers. However, you might end up eventually building your career designing digital healthcare products and therefore, might need more healthcare professionals in your network rather than just designers. Finally, with networking initiation, build-out & maintenance happening more online than offline, importance of campus relationships and old boys clubs is definitely going to decline. The point is simple — in the pecking order of networking elements, campus schmoozing & alumni events are going to be replaced by leveraging tech platforms, creating your personal brand in the digital world and good-ol’ hustling. PS: my belief is also that elitism in recruiting (eg. Company XYZ only goes to these 2–3 campuses for hiring) will reduce drastically. As the required skill-sets for all professions evolve dramatically in the 4th Industrial Revolution era, employers will become more open-minded and honestly, will have no option but to go where the skillset is (if US universities aren’t producing enough data scientists, companies will go and hire wherever they are available, be it Warsaw or Trivandrum).
- Credentialing — the tech industry has already taken the lead in adopting alternate credentialing mechanisms such as hackathons, internships or in the blockchain & crypto world, publishing a solid white paper :). In a rapidly changing business environment, credentialing provided by relatively slow-moving and static university channels is frankly, declining in importance. Similar to the paradigm of continuous learning, credentialing will also become a continuous phenomenon that is driven by practical skillsets & real-life outcomes delivered on the job.
As the above scenarios play out, taking on an unrealistic amount of student debt that is decoupled with the real long-term value of the asset itself, doesn’t make much sense. Why does this delta exist and how can it be brought down going forward are of course, key questions that educational institutions and policy-makers face today.
Some life-strategy suggestions:
For Millennials with significant student loans: would be good to prepare a detailed and practical financial plan to pare down this debt. Have the discipline to stick with this plan, and make the necessary sacrifices of ‘living below your means’ to accomplish it ASAP. As the loans come down, create a fresh capital allocation for ‘continuous learning’ via online courses, certifications, networking events etc. In the long-run, this will be money well-spent and give you a massive ROI.
For students about to enter university soon: rather than taking a less-thoughtful approach that is driven by historical precedence and herd-mentality, be brave enough to take a fresh approach to evaluating your options. This is a massive investment of your time and money, so think like an investor. Deeply compare the long-term ROIs of public vs private universities. Be sensitive to tuition & overhead costs of specific courses, and compare them against the tangible post-graduation prospects they offer. Think about every angle — univ. brand vs the actual course, full-time vs part-time, location with associated living costs and career options. In a rapidly changing economic environment, things like financial freedom & employment flexibility are going to be very important in the long term. Include these aspects in your career math. It’s hard to think on these lines as an 18 year old, so the role of parents, teachers and other experienced stakeholders will be very important in guiding them through this process.
As a society, we have already made the mistake of burdening our newest generation with this student loan problem. Similar to issues like the environment, everyone needs to come together and start working on removing this albatross from the necks of our students.