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Kids and Money: Why college is not one big 'scam' [The Kansas City Star :: BC-PFP-KIDSANDMONEY:KC]

Let's say you're a college freshman who took out thousands of dollars in student loans to help pay for tuition, textbooks and room and board.

Let's also say you just earned a 4.0 GPA in your first semester but decided to chuck college because it's just one big rip-off that loads graduates down with debt and unpromising job prospects.

A young man claiming to be a Kansas State University student made those comments and much more in a Facebook meltdown that went viral shortly before Christmas.

Put aside whether the online author was real or not. The "student" articulated what a lot of students and parents feel about the high cost of a college education and whether the end justifies the expense.

While I disagree with some of the points - and will rebut them in this column - the Facebook writer's opinions are still worth chewing on.

Let's start with the writer's frustration over the high cost of college and "paying $200 for a $6 textbook." There's no argument from me on both of these points.

It's no secret that college tuition is rising faster than family incomes are growing and faster than the rate of inflation, though recently those gaps have narrowed. Many schools have bloated administrative budgets, with many jobs created to deal with government financial aid red tape and other programs.

It's also a fact that many schools have large endowments that could be pried open further to provide more scholarships and grants.

As for textbooks, prices are outrageous, especially in the sciences, though many schools offer online options to keep costs down.

That said, if you wind up borrowing tens of thousands of dollars a year to attend your dream school, there may be trade-offs. That's especially true if you're pursuing a degree in a historically lower-paying profession such as sociology or teaching.

The web author also was convinced that college students "are being scammed" because you are borrowing thousands of dollars "to learn things you will never even use."

Generally, students are required to take classes in their early semesters that teach very few practical day-to-day skills. For me, it was geology my freshman year. Was I interested in being a rock jock? No, but I enjoyed the class nevertheless. A lot depends on your attitude about learning.

And that brings me to the writer's larger point about being scammed by the system. At the end of the day, the onus is on the student borrowing the money to understand how much debt is being taken on and what the payoff will be in terms of a job and a paycheck.

Parents also bear some responsibility for making sure their teen understands what a college education costs. And, frankly, many parents don't want to say no to a school that's a financial reach.

Students graduating from high school do have options. Many schools you've probably never heard of provide great and affordable education. In addition, the college experience isn't for everyone, which is one reason why trade schools that offer specialized educations and placements in well-paid jobs have become so popular.

You can have a healthy debate over the online writer's claim that college is not all that useful for getting a job. Some research shows just the opposite - that of the 11.6 million jobs created after the last recession, 8.4 million went to students with at least a bachelor's degree, according to a 2016 report from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

When it's all said and done, there's no question there are fundamental problems with our system of higher education. Whether you agree with the Facebook poster or my take, college affordability needs to be an important part of the national conversation.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Steve Rosen is assistant business editor at The Kansas City Star. To reach him, call 816-234-4879 or send email to srosen@kcstar.com.

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(c)2017 The Kansas City Star

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