A Christine O’Donnell “Controversy”:  Fifteen Years for a College Degree

While reading a recent news article regarding the neophyte Republican Senate candidate from Delaware, Christine O’Donnell, I was struck by the comment from the writer (unfortunately, I can’t find the link).  Regardless, the writer commented on multiple questions and controversies, one of which was the fact that it took her about fifteen years to obtain her college degree from Fairleigh Dickinson.  The article also noted her comment that it took her about ten years to pay off her student loans.

Is this really a controversy as much as a commentary on the hurdles facing young people trying to obtain their degree?  Let’s parse the facts.  She obtained her college degree this year and is about 41 years of age.  If it took her fifteen years, that means that she would have started college while in her mid-twenties.  If it took her about ten years to pay off her loans, which implies that she’s now debt free of student loans, then she probably took on considerable debt but was then unable to complete college due, at least in part, to a lack of funding.  It took years to pay off the debt and bring some order to her finances before she could finally complete the degree.

What does this mean for an average person completing this degree at this stage in life?  While my father taught me not to make assumptions – it makes an ass out of you and me – there are moments when it’s instructive.  Assume that the data is correct and a person really does make significantly more – almost $1 million – over their life with a degree than without.  Assume that the average age of a woman giving birth for the first time is twenty-five, which according to the National Center on Health Statistics, it is.  A person who has to take additional time to complete their degree without ending up in debt afterwards will finally have the opportunity to make the higher salary only when they’re finally in their "green years" and if there’s a child, it’s a teen starting to look at college.  The income flows that are necessary to help them care for their families and prepare for their own retirements are postponed with the result that the person is facing a working retirement well past sixty-five years of age.  If the person held off on children during that period and still wants a family, then the family’s financial situation will be that the kid’s education will be kicking in when a worker would be actively considering retirement about two generations ago.

Whether you agree with the assumptions or not, the reality is that the cost of today’s higher education have a major impact on young people.  Some choose to postpone forming their own families until their debts are paid off or reduced and they can afford a house in which to raise the kids.  Some choose to purchase older cars with the resulting loss of car sales and employment at the dealer and on the line.  Some simply give up and default, accepting that they’ll be haunted forever by the debt around their neck.  These kinds of scenarios can only be avoided if:

  1. the youth has clear guidance and an understanding of the process in obtaining and financing a degree;
  2. the youth is willing to explore and accept alternatives to the model of goin’ off for four years;
  3. College costs are somehow brought under control so that it’s once again relatively affordable.

Since #3 won’t happen without significant public pressure, governmental intervention or a certifiable miracle, then it’s up to us to involve ourselves and keep talking to the kids.

I’m thoroughly unfamiliar with Christine O’Donnell and hadn’t heard of her until the Delaware republican primary.  But the willingness to stick to a plan for fifteen years and finish it without debt is actually something of which to be proud.  It’s the fact that some find this mindset controversial is what should really be controversial.


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