Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, May 30, 2004
by Susan Ives

I asked Jaime, a young man who works at my corner copy shop, how school was going. He will graduate from UTSA next May (knock wood) with a degree in biology.

“Have you heard that tuition is going up 30 percent?” he asked, his brow furrowing.

I wanted to know how that affected him.

Thirteen hours in the coming fall semester will cost almost $1,000 more than he paid for 14 hours this spring. Up until now, his financial aid package of about $2,300 met tuition and fees, with enough left over for books and a parking pass. Next semester, it won’t even cover tuition.

He didn’t know how he would make up the shortfall. Maybe put the books on a credit card.

In 2002, graduates of public colleges carried an average of $17,100 in student loan debt, students of private colleges, $21,200.

When I graduated from college 30 years ago, most students, even those at pricey private schools like the one I attended, graduated debt-free.

In 1974, a year of tuition, room, board, books and fees at my alma mater cost about $7,000 a year. My marginally middle-class family managed to eke that out without loans. Next year, the school estimates that an incoming freshman will shell out $41,447 a year.

In 30 years, minimum wage rose from $2.10 to a $5.15 an hour. Do the math. College costs have gone up about 500 percent, wages about 150 percent.

Government policies also have changed. When I was in college, the government gave grants. Now it underwrites loans.

Going into debt for college makes sense if the payoff is a high-paying professional job. Will Jaime find one?

If you listen to Ralph Cortez, Jaime’s job prospects are uncertain.

I met Ralph, president of the Communications Workers of America local, on the picket line outside one of SBC’s downtown offices. I asked him why his union called their strike.

He pointed to a pair of women turning the corner. One carried a sign reading, “Got problems with your DSL?” The other sign answered, “Call India.”

Health insurance, another strike issue, is important, but SBC’s insurance package won’t do workers any good if they don’t have jobs, Cortez said. The company already has farmed more than 3,000 service jobs to India and the Philippines, where workers earn as little as a dollar an hour. More jobs will migrate.

SBC workers want a crack at these jobs. The company says they have to compete with the overseas workers.

These are exactly the kind of high-tech, high-paid jobs that bright young men and women like Jaime hope to get when they graduate from college, thousands of dollars in debt. You try paying off your student loan at a buck an hour.

We’ve already seen blue-collar jobs, like those at the Levi’s plant, move overseas where wages are low and benefits nonexistent. The new wave of jobs going abroad is knowledge work. Customer support. Accounting. Insurance claims adjusting. Lab tests. Medical billing.

The person who does your income tax or reads your mammogram may be in Manila or Mumbai.

U.S. employers will ship about 588,000 white-collar jobs overseas this year, compared to 315,000 in 2003, predicts Forrester Research, a technology research firm. They forecast that the migration of jobs in software development, computer programming, customer service, accounting, legal paperwork and research and development will increase to 830,000 positions by 2005.

There’s a disconnect between what we’re promising our young people — go to college, land a good job — and what they see their parents facing — these professional jobs going overseas.

I don’t have an easy answer. There’s a fundamental flaw in a system that forces 18-year-olds to gamble that the degree they are financing now will be marketable in four years. And if it’s not, what then? Go back to school, run up more debt and study another field?

Corporations can ship jobs overseas because they have such a small investment in their work force. We’ve shifted that burden to teenagers.

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