Some outmoded notions die hard. Take the belief that a high school diploma is an adequate ticket to a good-paying job and a middle-class American life.

Long a questionable proposition, that idea has been rendered fully obsolete by the economic changes wrought by the Great Recession. American job gains since 2008 have been largely confined to workers with more than a high school education.

Yet a survey of 804 Minnesota adults conducted last fall found 44 percent of them still convinced that "there will always be plenty of ways for people with only a high school education to make a decent living in Minnesota."

That's wishful thinking -- and it's risky thinking if it guides the choices made by families with school-aged children.

"People's perceptions aren't changing as rapidly as economic reality," said Paul Cerkvenik, executive director of the Minnesota Private College Council. Its research foundation cosponsored a survey last fall of Minnesota thinking about higher education, along with the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota.

They asked an open-ended question: What's the biggest obstacle that keeps students from getting more education? More than three of every five respondents volunteered some variation of the same cause: high cost.

Coping with that cost increasingly means borrowing money, even for students from comparatively well-heeled families. That's the story in the latest state Office of Higher Education report about how Minnesotans are paying for college. It reported a 10 percent jump in total Minnesota student borrowing between 2009 and 2011 -- years that also saw a near doubling in federal Pell Grants for low-income students and sizable increases in institutional and private scholarships for the needy.

The latest average total student debt in Minnesota, reported last fall, was slightly more than $29,000, ranking fourth-highest among the states.

An 8 percent total enrollment gain between 2009 and 2011 and continuing upward pressure on tuition and fees explain some of the borrowing increase, but not all of it, said Larry Pogemiller, director of the state Office of Higher Education. Personal incomes stalled or shrank during the recession, and an average family's ability to finance college in ways other than student loans diminished.

For some families, old notions about student debt need revision. Some families opt for debt rather a drawdown of other assets, believing that comparatively low interest rates on the loans and the ability of a college grad to earn enough to cover the debt service make them a smart choice. Some take on debt to pay for a more appealing student lifestyle than college dormitories afford.

That thinking was predicated on a stronger job market for recent college graduates than the nation has seen since 2008. Today, for students of average means, "it's a real high risk to go into debt when your chances of having a high-income job after graduation are reduced," Pogemiller said. "All the studies show that a college degree pays off, but it pays off on average. It doesn't pay off for everybody."

The borrowing surge may also reflect another old idea, voiced by a voluble former Minnesota governor a dozen years ago: "If you're smart enough to go to college, you're smart enough to figure out how to pay for it yourself." That's another notion that's past its expiration date.


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