Continental Divides

Incalculable Payoffs of a College Degree

UM President Seth Bodnar says a college education is worth its weight in gold

By John McCaslin

No sooner did the U.S. Supreme Court strike down President Joe Biden’s controversial student loan forgiveness plan to erase $430 billion in debt for millions of Americans that POTUS came back with a $39 billion bailout for 804,000 borrowers.

In this latest round of “relief,” 3,700 Montana borrowers have been notified that they will share in $185 million in “student loan forgiveness” earmarked for this state alone. All told, since the start of the administration, more than $116 billion in loan forgiveness has been approved for 3.4 million-plus borrowers across the country.

For the overwhelming remainder of loanees, past and present, who’ve duly toiled through thick and thin to pay off their debts, the presidential rebates are a poke in the eye — practically as outrageous as the $200 billion-plus in fraudulent COVID-19 “business relief” loans (also forgiven) Uncle Sam haphazardly dished out to crooks and scoundrels.

Perhaps the biggest losers in this complicated column, however, are current and future graduating high schoolers who’ve been fed so much sensational disinformation about individual student loan debt “reaching into the six figures” that they’re understandably thinking twice about pursuing a college degree.

Trust University of Montana President Seth Bodnar when he says a college education is worth its weight in gold — and not as costly as some might believe.

“Less than one half of one percent of four-year public university graduates complete their degrees with more than $100,000 in debt,” Bodnar told me in a telephone interview. “So these stories of people graduating hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, they exist, [but] they don’t really exist in large numbers for public universities.”

In his sixth year at the helm of UM, Bodnar explained that the national narrative surrounding higher education is dominated by schools “that really only serve about 10 percent of the college students in this country — and that is selective, mostly private, expensive institutions.”

The same narrative, he continued, includes “the whole discussion around debt forgiveness, [which] has sent the exact wrong message about higher education to prospective students: that going to college is such a risky endeavor that the federal government is going to have to bail you out if you go. And that’s simply not the case.”

“Yes,” he added, “there are problems with private universities charging $60,000 to $70,000 a year in tuition; I cringe when I see what some of these universities are charging. [But] here at the University of Montana, a Montana resident can [enroll] for less than $8,000 a year in tuition and fees.”

Which, the UM president conceded, is “not a small amount of money, but when you look at the average impact of a college degree on a person’s lifetime earnings, it’s well over a million dollars.”

Bodnar revealed, at the same time, that 42 percent of students at public four-year universities like the University of Montana “complete their degrees with zero debt.”

And as for students who do graduate with a loan balance, 80 percent of them “owe less than $30,000,” he said.

“You can pay off that debt in less than two years with your wage premium alone,” Bodnar suggested. “So all of the data continues to indicate that a college education is one of the best investments that you can make as an individual.”

Earning a college degree, at the same time, has the added bonus of supporting our nation during an unprecedented period of flux.

“There are benefits that accrue not just to that individual, but to society as a whole,” Bodnar educated. “One recent study showed that every additional year of schooling for a country’s adult population resulted in per capita GDP growth of between 9 and 10 percent.

“So the fastest way to grow our economy — the fastest way to rise all boats with a rising tide, i.e. ‘inclusive prosperity’ — is for more people to get an education.”

A Rhodes and Truman scholar who graduated first in his class at West Point — as a member of the U.S. Army Green Berets, he commanded a Special Forces detachment on multiple deployments around the world, while also serving two tours in Iraq — Bodnar warned recently that America is “losing its edge” on the world stage.

Fueling that trend, he wrote in the Washington Post, is a nationwide decline in college enrollment. In fact, 2.5 million fewer Americans are enrolled in college today than in 2011, and the nosedive is accelerating.

(Thanks to numerous academic innovations, including expansive student internship partnerships with Montana employers initiated as early as freshman orientation, enrollment on the Missoula campus is actually rising under Bodnar and his UM team).

That said, Bodnar pointed out if the downward trend in higher education continues, “a group of young Americans will — for the first time in our history — enter the workforce with less education that the one before.”

In other words, a resulting “erosion of the educational advantage that we’ve held in global affairs for the past 70 years,” Bodnar opined. “This is the most serious long-term national security challenge facing our country.”

He recalled the prolonged period when the rest of the world recognized the vital role that education played in producing America’s economic and military might.

“Our advantage is fading,” he concluded. “Our competitors are certainly not advising their youth, ‘Don’t get an education.’ They’re playing a long game, and they’re playing to win.”

John McCaslin is a longtime journalist and author.