It’s hard to argue with President Barack Obama’s assertion that a college degree has never been more valuable. Even in the bleakest economic times, college graduates are more likely to find decent employment. Studies show that the average college graduate will earn about $1 million more than the average high school graduate over a lifetime. Promising careers are particularly strong for college-educated professionals such as nurses, physical therapists, and athletic trainers.
Student loan debt, however, is hurting many of these future health care workers before their careers can take flight. Approximately 43 million people have nearly $1.3 trillion in student loan debt.
Nearly 70 percent of people who go to college take out loans. But the immediate return on a college degree is the lowest it’s been in a generation, according to a data analysis by the Huffington Post. In 1990, the typical college student graduated with debt equivalent to 28.6 percent of her annual earnings. By 2015, that number had ballooned to 74.3 percent. At this rate, student debt at graduation for bachelor’s degree holders could exceed annual wages in just seven years.
Many analysts believe this debt quagmire will be the next major financial crisis, rivaling or surpassing the housing crisis of the last decade. Troublesome student loan debts have a detrimental effect on society. College graduates with large student loans and those who can’t seem to find a way out are more likely to delay important life decisions like buying homes, getting married and advancing their education.
The student loan crisis has dire implications for healthcare professionals and for the nation’s health system.
A 2014 data analysis conducted by the National Student Nurses Association showed that the average debt burden of a nurse with a bachelor’s degree is $30,000, a figure that has risen steadily over the last several years. This is problematic on many levels.
First, as everyone knows, nursing is a demanding profession, particularly in the acute care setting where most work. Nurses are expected to manage complex situations, demonstrate caring and compassion, and coordinate care across multiple specialists. They often work extended shifts because many nursing stations are understaffed. And contrary to many widely held perceptions, entry level nurses are not highly paid—at least not compared to, say, doctors or pharmacists.
Many healthcare professionals who are stuck with big student loans are not inclined to take jobs in underserved communities such as rural areas and our central cities because the pay is often not as competitive.
The last point is crucially important for those of us in the higher education and healthcare space. Health care professions are evolving as rapidly as the health care industry. The barriers to entry keep rising, as many health care fields now require graduate degrees. For example, doctorates are now required of physical therapists and occupational therapists. Athletic trainers must now have master’s degrees. Employers increasingly require registered nurses to obtain bachelor’s degrees. As nurses play even more important roles in health care management and delivery, there is a push for more members of the nation’s nursing corps to earn graduate degrees and embrace careers as advanced practice nurses, especially in primary care settings.
However, many healthcare professionals are reluctant to take on additional debt to obtain graduate degrees. Translation: the student debt crisis is making it harder for many to get access to healthcare. Our universities, foundations, and the healthcare sector must work together to solve this crisis by embracing several strategies, including:
- Investing in the education of healthcare workers. This is a smart business move. More of the nation’s largest healthcare companies, including hospital systems, pharmaceutical firms, and health insurance companies have begun to pay for some or all of the undergraduate and graduate tuition of their employees. Others, especially those with chronic shortages in nursing, should consider adding such benefits. This is a great way to stem the shortage of health care workers, particularly nurses. It is a great investment in the employees and in our communities.
- Providing more debt relief opportunities for students. The federal government should strengthen its investment in the education of health care professionals by providing more debt relief options for students or new graduates or tuition assistance to complete their degrees. It should expand financial incentives, including forgiving outstanding debt, to nurses and other health care professionals in exchange for taking positions in underserved areas.
- Partnering to create funding sources. Those of us in the higher education and the health care space should work toward pooling our resources to create a joint fund for the education of health care professionals who graduate with minimal debt.
Tackling the student loan crisis is not merely the right thing to do for the future of healthcare; it is a mandate.
Anne Bavier is dean and professor of The University of Texas at Arlington’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation.