Solving the education dilemma

The quest for affordability should be the norm rather than the exception


Never has the need for education been so great, yet never have the majority of options consumed such a high percentage of gross income, nor left students with such burdening sums of student loan debt.

No state represents this conundrum better than New Hampshire, which was recently ranked first for the highest average debt per student ($36,101) upon graduation. This cost-benefit analysis is no longer a dilemma for only lower- and middle-class families – it’s now a conundrum for most families, especially if they have more than one child. It’s increasingly important that we explore and understand all of the educational options within an evolving workplace, while prioritizing the importance of value. Fortunately, community colleges are raising the bar and are likely to drive innovative educational solutions throughout the state. 

We recently organized a group of local leaders, four economists and a noted demographer for a tour of Great Bay Community College, led by Community College System of New Hampshire Chancellor Ross Gittell and GBCC President Wil Arvelo.

GBCC and the entire community college system are delivering applied academics for a fraction of the cost of most other educational institutions. Through professional outreach programs, local businesses are actively involved with helping educators tailor curriculum to meet the evolving needs of industry and services. The reciprocal approach makes it increasingly common for students to have jobs already in place before graduation, and without the debt that so commonly stunts the progression of adulthood. Knowing that the material being learned in the classroom is being actively applied within the community helps deliver a sense of purpose and pride. 

In our opinion, practices like these are increasingly commonsensical and should become a normal part of the college discussion for all families — the quest for affordable education should be the norm rather than the exception. It is also our responsibility to help eliminate the social stigma that is still sometimes associated with these “nontraditional” educational options. The global workforce is changing, and the model for education that worked so well 30 years ago needs to change as well. 

As Thomas Friedman wrote this past summer, “It’s the story of our time: The pace of change in technology, globalization and climate have started to outrun the ability of our political systems to build the social, educational, community workplace and political innovations needed for some citizens to keep up.” 

Given this new reality, it seems illogical to believe the traditional route of four expensive years of education beginning at the age of 18 is all that’s necessary for a fruitful career. Especially considering a great deal of academic content learned in freshman year is already outdated by junior or senior year.

Rather, our new world is likely no different than our Apple or Android operating system – our skill sets are going to require ongoing updates at various stages of our career. Otherwise, we risk being unprepared for the evolving needs of a modern workplace.

This alternative perspective means recasting the cost-benefit analysis of education to include 30 to 40 years (a marathon), rather than only four (a sprint). It means being realistic about our financial resources, the return on investment and the oftentimes counterproductive burden of an expensive education. 

Does spending $120,000 or more at the age of 18, without a committed and viable career path realistically prepare our young adults for the evolving demands of a modern workforce and the financial realities of today? Or would it make more sense to utilize high-quality, less expensive programs for foundational learning (prerequisites, trade or certificate) before spending top dollar in pursuit of a specialized career or highly regarded diploma?

It’s also common for two-year programs to allow matriculation to a four-year degree at a much lower cost. At roughly $6,000 per year (in-state), programs like GBCC and others have the potential to save families and students thousands of dollars while simultaneously helping them develop a foundational set of values and skills. 

As much as we would like to believe corporate citizenship will drive the specialized education needed for meaningful career advancement, we’re currently surrounded by too many situations of structural under-employment and stunted career paths. In many cases, our local barista has more student loan debt than the price of a first home and is unable to relocate for unique opportunities because of the need for free housing (living with their parents). Does this represent a system that’s meaningfully aligned with the needs of our workforce?

Choosing an unconventional path without the assurance of success can be difficult. It sometimes takes confidence and a strong will to stand apart from the herd. However, the conventional and often exceptionally expensive educational plan no longer promises success. Instead it often leads to the hypothetical over-indebted barista. 

Altering our cultural perspective of education will take time, but the underlying sands of education are changing. GBCC and other community colleges are the best examples of this, and a huge win for mindful students, family balance sheets and the competitiveness of our local community. 

Tom Sedoric is a nationally recognized wealth manager and managing director-investments of The Sedoric Group of Wells Fargo Advisors in Portsmouth. D. Casey Snyder is a financial consultant with The Sedoric Group. 

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