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Kitchen Table Politics: The Costs And Benefits Of Higher Education

Kitchen Table Politics is a five-part podcast series, each episode tied to a different stage in life, from birth through retirement. (The series, hosted by yours truly, lives within the FiveThirtyEight elections podcast feed. If you already subscribe, you’ll get all the episodes.) This is the second episode, and we’re talking about higher education.

Joining me are Ben Casselman, FiveThirtyEight’s chief economics writer, and guest Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C.

Starting with the misconceptions over who goes to college, we go on to explore the costs of higher education; what happens to students who can’t repay their debts; and some of the other types of learning — like certificate programs — that happen at colleges but don’t lead to two-year, four-year or graduate degrees.

As Ben wrote earlier this year in his article “Shut Up About Harvard”: “Most students never have to write a college entrance essay, pad a résumé or sweet-talk a potential letter-writer.” Nearly half are enrolled at community colleges, and almost a quarter of students at four-year schools are age 25 or older.

Michelle gives us her perspective on ways that both colleges and government could make higher education more affordable and also better suited to the lives of students who may have other family or financial obligations. And we dig into how higher ed has been bandied about in the political discourse this election season.

Throughout the five-part podcast series, we’re also collecting your stories. We’ll play excerpts each episode. Below, listen to a few phone calls we received.

Nathan: “I was homeless for most of my teenage years.”

Gideon: “I graduated with money in the bank.”

Tanya: “It helped me to get a better job with better pay, but the pay doesn’t actually give me the money that I need.”

Chris: “Paying for college has absolutely shaped everything.”

Maria: “We’re in the year 2016 and it costs basically a house to get an undergraduate education.”

JT: “My parents don’t really understand what $20,000 worth of student loans is going to look like … 10 years from now.”

Next week, we’re discussing jobs — getting them, keeping them, retraining for them, and how politicians are talking about them. To tell us about your success or struggles finding and keeping work, call 646-820-0538.

Here are some highlights from our conversation about higher education. These have been lightly edited for clarity.

What college students look like

Ben Casselman: When we think about college, you call to mind this image of 18- to 22-year-olds living in dorms on leafy suburban campuses, going to classes and frat parties. And that obviously exists, but it’s a pretty small part of what we really mean by higher education in this country.

Half of students, roughly, are at two-year schools, at community colleges. And even if you look at four-year colleges, you’re talking about a lot of students who are attending part time and a lot of students who are over 25. And most students are at unselective public, regional universities. That’s what we’re really talking about when we talk about college, never mind the tens of thousands of students who are enrolled in certificate programs and other kinds of non-degree programs. So really, postsecondary education is a lot bigger than that traditional image.

Farai Chideya: Why is it important that we think about education in the ways that you’re arguing — which is, more broadly?

Ben: First of all, it definitely has a big impact on policy, right? If we focus all of our policy discussions on this narrow slice about what matters for people at these elite four-year schools, we miss a lot of what really matters to the majority of students who are attending part time, who are struggling with day-to-day issues that maybe aren’t as common at Harvard or Columbia or wherever else.

The other thing is that when we hear the debate about college and about everybody going to college, I hear people say, you know, that’s crazy, right? Not everybody should go to college. Not everybody should go and get a bachelor’s degree, and that’s true.

But, again, college is a lot larger than that. And so we need to make sure that when we’re thinking about, you know, whether quote/unquote “everybody should go to college,” what we’re really talking about here is everybody going to some form of postsecondary education. And it’s increasingly difficult in this country to get any kind of sort of decent middle-class job if you don’t have some level of education that goes beyond high school.

The true cost of college

Ben: There’s obviously no way to have this conversation outside the cost of college, and that’s something that we’re hearing so much about now, both in cost and then in debt, which has broken out in the campaign season and has been something that we’ve been hearing increasingly about. Michelle, I’m curious, how big an issue is cost and debt? And is it as serious a problem as we keep hearing about?

Michelle Asha Cooper: I definitely think it’s a problem. Right now, we have over 70 percent of students who are enrolled in college taking out some form of student loan debt.

Now, student loan debt is actually not a bad thing. It’s appropriate and actually a good thing to have students invest in the cost of their education. And on average, most students have a loan debt that is about $28,900 upon graduating. However, there are students who have significantly more and larger amounts of debt. Those often are students who are going to graduate schools; those are often students who are in for-profit institutions and students who are in private institutions.

So that often skews the amount to some of the astronomical figures that we see reported and talked about a great deal. But what we don’t talk about as much are the students who have lower amounts of debt who don’t graduate and end up in delinquency. That is an untold story about student loan borrowing that I think we need to talk about more.

So in other words, what I’m saying is it’s not always the students with the highest amount of debt who are in trouble. It’s students who have low levels of debt who did not graduate from their programs who tend to be delinquent on that debt. And we at the Institute for Higher Education Policy did a study several years ago where we found that about 15 percent of students end up in delinquency at some point. And overwhelmingly, those are students who were enrolled at some point at a community college or at a for-profit institution who did not graduate.

Kitchen Table Politics is produced and edited by Galen Druke, Simone Landon and Jody Avirgan. Tony Chow and Lucina Melesio helped with production. Subscribe to the FiveThirtyEight elections podcast in iTunes or by searching “fivethirtyeight” in your favorite podcast app.

Farai Chideya is a former senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.