Student Loans and Vocations

Money Tunnel by RambergMediaImages

Since most seminaries require that incoming students be free of financial obligations, the increasing burden of student loan debt has affected vocations, according to a recent Catholic News Service story:

69 percent of religious orders “turned away at least one person because of student loans” and many religious communities have had to ask young people to delay their applications because of unpaid student loans.

I am strongly in favor of increasing the number of vocations, but there are several key quotations in this article that shed light on the problem of student loan debt. To wit:

Charles Flynn, president of the College of Mount St. Vincent in Riverdale, N.Y…said Mount St. Vincent makes financial aid a top priority and has significantly increased its financial aid packages to students since he became president 12 years ago.

With all due respect to Dr. Flynn, this policy may unintentionally worsen the problem he and his college are trying to fix. The more we subsidize higher (or lower) education, the more these costs have seemed to increase. Perhaps it’s a chicken-and-egg question, but I think a strong case can be made that the provision of student loans itself leads to increasing college costs.
Why do I say that? An example:

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University in Washington, told CNS that the university’s financial aid counseling staff has grown in recent years not only to advise students in the initial enrollment process but throughout their college years and in searching for a job after graduation.

With more money coming from student loans, colleges have little incentive to be efficient by, say, reducing staff or eliminating unnecessary positions. Again, chicken-and-egg, but if all colleges reduced their financial aid counseling staff and put up a sign saying “You DO have to pay off your student loans!” then students wouldn’t have to borrow as much to pay for their salaries.
The politically popular though incorrect (oops, sorry for being redundant) solution, sure to win Occupy votes, is to lower student loan interest rates:

The Senate plan…also looks to lower the loans’ interest rates and find funding by imposing new payroll taxes on high-earning owners of private corporations.

Devil’s advocate scenario: artificially low interest rates encourage more students to go to college, weakening the relative value of a college degree due to oversupply; employers thus see less benefit of hiring college grads and even if they want to hire, these new payroll taxes will reduce their ability to hire anyway.
I’ve already pointed out the moral problems that come from low interest rates; these proposals to “fix” student loan debt are examples of what I discussed there.

Ordination by Catholic Church (England and Wales)

If we are serious about increasing vocations, it seems we might push for policies that discourage, rather than encourage, borrowing for college, especially for students who have little interest in going or chance of success while there. Yes, this may seem harsh, but do we believe that everyone should, say, attend military boot camp, or should even attend seminary? No, we recognize that those institutions serve only a portion of our population who are interested and meet particular requirements. Is higher education different?

Second, and much more importantly, we should encourage the consideration of vocations early in children’s lives. God can certainly call teens and preteens to consider serving Him; He doesn’t wait until adults have completed freshman orientation and racked up thousands of student loan debt.

3 Comments

  1. Sr.Mary /

    The other factor this does not consider: many young people need (or think they need) some experience after high school before making a committment to relgious life. A young man can attend college seminary, and it’s seen as a valid college option. Relgious life is seen as a greater committment, and many want college experience first. Few young people are ready to enter right out of high school.

    • Tim Shaughnessy /

      Very good points. Just thinking about my own college days, though; I would MUCH prefer if our future priests could avoid some of the “experiences” that I had! :)