When I first attended college, access to higher education was viewed as a privilege not an entitlement.  Students either had to have parents with sufficient resources to pay the costs of a college education or, like me and many others, they had to work their way through college.  A glutton for academic punishment, I worked my way through college several times, ultimately completing a bachelors degree, four masters, and a doctorate.  I never received even a penny in financial aid.  In fact, I thought financial aid meant going to work each day.  For my generation, working your way through college was normal.  But by the time I became a college professor, things had changed.  A college education was no longer considered a privilege.  Rather, it had evolved into a right, one that should be funded by taxpayers in the form of federal grants and guaranteed student loans.

I spent 36 years as a college professor and administrator.  During this time I witnessed federal financial aid growing faster than kudzu on a Georgia highway.  Predictably, as the number of students receiving financial aid increased, the law of unintended consequences reared its ugly head and several things happened: 1) the number of people going to college increased, 2) the number of students working their way through college declined, 3) college students developed an entitlement mentality that began to replace the traditional American work ethic, and 4) colleges and universities began to steadily increase the cost of tuition—something they could do only because the American taxpayer was picking up the tab in the form of federal grants and guaranteed student loans.

Fast forward to the present. It is now common for new college graduates to be buried under a mountain of debt even before they walk across the stage to receive their diplomas.  The typical college student now graduates owing more than $25,000 in student loans.  Graduate students can easily pile up more than $100,000 in government backed loans.  To make matters worse, many of these new college graduates majored in fields that have little or no demand in the marketplace.  Consequently, they have little hope of ever completely repaying their federal loans, even if they want to—which a growing number don’t.  Having developed an entitlement mentality, many college graduates now resent the fact that they are expected to repay their student loans.   As a result, they are beginning to default on the loans in unprecedented numbers.  The default rate on student loans has skyrocketed in the last three years, a fact one would naturally attribute to a weak job market.  But in truth, the cause of the upsurge in the default rate for student loans has more to do with the entitlement mentality—a mentality that federal grants and loans have reinforced—than with America’s anemic economy.

Writing in The Washington Times, Ben Wolfgang had this to say about student loan defaults: “Four out of five bankruptcy lawyers reported a significant increase in clients seeking help with college loan debt, and 40 percent said such cases have increased by at least 25 percent in the past three years…With college loan debt now surpassing $1 trillion and outpacing credit card debt for the first time in American history, many are beginning to see grim parallels between student borrowing and the subprime mortgage crisis that ultimately derailed the nation’s economy in 2008.”  In recent months the nation’s economy has taken a few tentative steps in the right direction on shaky legs that are still weak, but there is a time bomb waiting to go off that could derail the recovery, sending it back to the worst days of the recent recession.  That time bomb is a rapidly growing default rate on student loans.

Congress can solve the default crisis, but not until it stops using the issue to pander to college age voters and their parents and decides to make some difficult but right decisions.  Actually, just one change to the federal financial aid program will go a long way to reducing overspending while ensuring that student loans are paid back. That change has to do with eligibility.  Right now all students who satisfy the specified need requirements can receive grants and loans regardless of their chosen college major.  As a result, students are encumbering lifelong debt majoring in academic disciplines that either have no relevance in the workplace or are in perpetual oversupply.  These students pay tens of thousands of dollars to major in fields that will prepare them to do nothing more than work in minimum wage jobs after graduation, jobs they could have gotten without a college degree.

At the same time that America’s colleges and universities continue to pump out marginally employable graduates, critical shortages of qualified applicants persist in the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).  These disciplines represent fields that are critical to America’s ability to compete in the global marketplace.  While Chinese, Japanese, and Korean universities are turning out engineers and scientists, American universities are turning psychologists and lawyers.  If the federal government will limit financial aid to disciplines that are in critical short supply but are needed to help America compete on the global stage, several things will happen—all of them good: 1) the number of students majoring in high-demand disciplines will increase, 2) students who graduate will be able to repay their student loans because they will be able to get high-value jobs, and 3) the amount of money devoted to federal financial aid will be reduced significantly, thereby reducing out-of-control government spending.

You might be wondering what will happen to students who wish to major in academic disciplines that do not meet the eligibility requirements I propose for federal financial aid.  The answer is “nothing.”  Students who are not concerned about the marketability of their degrees can continue to pursue them, just not at the taxpayer’s expense. This will mean that students who wish to major in degrees where the return on investment is limited to inner satisfaction will have to work their way through college, which—in turn—might be the best thing that ever happened to them.