Education: Wente just doesn’t get

EDITED High Fees by Nick SleptovThis Halloween, The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente took the latest in her series of half-baked pot-shots at higher education. Her war: the academy. Her target: students. Her ammunition: today’s youth are a bunch of spoiled brats who just need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, already!

According to Wente, there is no debt crisis. Not only are things not that bad, she says, but student debt builds the same kind of moral fibre that the Depression did for our grandparents. No twenty-something has ever had it easy, but those malcontent millennials need to learn to appreciate their collective cake-walk.

Taken alone, Wente’s piece, entitled “Student debt crisis? No, expectations crisis,” gets some things right, and others wrong: It is probably true that many of my cohort could use some toughening up. But no “student debt crisis?” Let’s take a look at the numbers.

A Statistics Canada report from 2010 found that those with student debt were slightly less likely than non-indebted graduates to have started saving for retirement or own a home, and slightly more likely to have a mortgage. Chillingly, those between twenty and twenty-nine years of age who borrowed to pay for university had lower average net-worth than those who had paid up-front: $17,500 for those who had borrowed, and $61,000 for those who did not. This is significant, given that there are some 1.2 million students in Canadian degree programs—half of whom have or will have a loan by the time they graduate.

Student debt in Canada sits at roughly $23 billion, and that amount will not decrease anytime soon. Universities are ever-more reliant on tuition fees to keep the lights on—and tuition increases are significantly ahead of inflation.

But maybe Wente has simply lost touch with what it’s like to be a student. Let’s contrast a Globe report on student debt in August 2012 and a Wente column from earlier this year with Wente’s piece from last week.

The Globe and Mail, 2012: “… [F]ifty-eight per cent of students said they expect to graduate with upwards of $20,000 in debt, and twenty-one per cent estimate they will owe more than $40,000.” And: “According to Canada Student Loan Program data, most students take nearly ten years to pay their loans. The average student debt upon graduation, according to the Canadian Federation of Students, is $27,000.”

Wente, April 9, 2013: “The real story among today’s twenty-somethings isn’t unemployment. It’s underemployment. An amazing number of university-educated offspring of the upper middle class are working as caterers, concierges and fitness instructors until something better comes along … Today’s young service class may be the most overqualified service class in history. And now, new research from a trio of Canadian economists suggests this unhappy trend will be a fact of life for years to come.”

Wente, Oct. 31, 2013: “I graduated debt-free, thanks to low tuition, scholarships, family help and my incredible waitressing skills. But it was a long time before I stopped living like a student. My first job paid $5,000 a year (the equivalent of about $28,000 today) … But after six or seven jobs in six or seven years, I was finally able to move out of my rented attic and ditch my futon bed.”

She then cites a think-tank president who claims that university graduates start making the big bucks two or three years after leaving school, and that student loan interest is only about two per cent per annum in real terms.

Not only has the experience of paying for university changed significantly since Wente’s school days, the columnist cannot even decide whether or not there is a problem!

Of course, student debt probably does not matter much to Globe readers. After all, the target market of “Canada’s National Newspaper” are those earning more than $120,000 a year—in other words, not the sort of people whose kids qualify for student loans in the first place.

It is right to change one’s opinion in response to new information. It is indecent for a veteran journalist to denounce students as cry-babies for not being able to afford an education and a shot at a decent income.

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