With the current student loan debt at $610 billion President Obama just announced a proposal to make it easier for students to manage their loan debt. And although anything that makes it easier for students to pay their debt is a welcome relief, we have to address some deeper issues if we are to compete in the knowledge economy.
First, I believe we should create a commission to study ways in which college can be made substantially more affordable to all students. Not through loans that attach a ball and chain to ankles that haven’t yet stepped into the workplace. But through programs where students don’t pay until after they graduate and get a job. Studying what other countries that are beating us in education are doing would be a great way to save time.
I recommend that everyone (starting with our elected officials) read Andrés Oppenheimer’s Basta de cuentos: la obsesión latinoamericana con el pasado y las 12 claves del futuro, Vintage en Español, 2010. Taking advantage of his incredible access to all levels of government and business, Oppenheimer traveled around the world to find the best education practices from which Latin America could learn. He came out with very valuable lessons for everyone, not just for countries South of the U.S. border.
Second, we all need to do a better job at guiding our youth toward careers in high demand. I know we all want to study what we are passionate about, but sometimes it’s a question of kids not knowing what else they might like. The adults among us must continue to find more creative ways to highlight the exciting opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math.) Granted, in the last few years there’s been a concerted effort to support these areas; and more businesses, realizing we are at a point where there aren’t enough workers with the required skills, have gotten involved. But I think we can do more.
Parents need to understand that students who incur debt to study careers in low demand will have a much tougher time paying off their loans and will suffer through longer periods of unemployment. It is their responsibility to talk to their children about career options and the kind of salaries usually paid in the various industries. It is their job to put them in touch with professionals who can clarify these and other doubts. There are tools available to help parents with this process, one of which, the Occupational Outlook Handbook should become every family’s best friend. It not only shows what careers will be in high demand in the next few years but also the education requirements, the salary range, the type of activities the various jobs require and lots of other details.
Third, both parents and students need to understand that if you start your college education and get a loan and then drop out of college before you finish your education, you still have to pay that loan but you are forfeiting the benefit of a degree: a higher income. So now you are stuck with a loan without the education needed to get a higher paying job to pay back the loan. So you can’t quit.
Fourth, more Latino parents need to start saving for college from the time their kids are born. You already know you want your child to go to college, that’s part of the reason you came to this country. Well, until things change, college for most people has a cost. You must be prepared to pay your fair share of that cost. You must plan for it just as you plan to buy a house or a car. It’s the best investment you can make in your child’s future.
Until we as individual members of the Hispanic community make education our top priority, all the government help to make loan repayment easier is not going to be enough to pull us up to where we should be.
Mariela Dabbah is the CEO of www.Latinosincollege.com, a renown speaker, media contributor and award-winning author. Her new book: El Poder de la Mujer (Women Power) will be released March, 2012 by Penguin.
Mariela Dabbah is a published author and founder of Latinos in College, a not-for-profit organization, and of the Red Shoe Movement, an initiative that invites women to wear red shoes to work on Tuesday to signal their support for other women’s careers.