A college degree is supposed to give young people the wings to fly.

For too many young Mainers, however, the debt that accompanies that degree has become a millstone around their necks.

The average Maine college student emerges with $29,000 in debt, the third highest average debt load in the nation.

And that’s the average, meaning many students struggle with far larger debts well into their 30s.

What’s more, they are walking out of school into a cold job market where first opportunities are difficult to find and upward mobility limited.

The problem is particularly difficult in the Northeast, where tuition is historically higher and more students attend private, four-year colleges.

The problem is even more pronounced in Maine, where state government contributes less than other states toward higher education and students come from less wealthy families.

“You’re taught you have to go to college; you have to get a degree,” student Chelsie O’Connell told the Sun Journal for a story Sunday.

“What they don’t tell you is a college degree does not guarantee you a $40,000 job,” she said.

In other words, too few students are connecting the dots between their college choices and the financial realities of life after schooling.

Twenty or 30 years ago, all high school students may truly have had the luxury of following their hearts into a course of study at a college of their dreams.

Since then, however, college costs have grown far faster than inflation and average incomes, while state tuition support has dwindled.

Today, most students and their parents must rely heavily on borrowing, and making the wrong career choice can be a four-year road to financial disaster.

What colleges should be providing is the truth — how much their average graduates are earning a year or two after graduation in various fields.

Students then should have access to a bit of expert financial planning to know whether their chosen career path can reasonably support their expected debt load.

The financial crisis of the past two years was largely built upon borrowers and lenders failing to do just such elementary financial planning. The result has been disastrous for millions of individuals and families.

The sad reality is that too many young high school graduates do not have the financial skills, or the emotional detachment, to make such a large and increasingly speculative decision without help.

Yes, on average, college graduates earn significantly more than non-graduates.

Still, many young college grads will struggle mightily in the beginning to find their financial footing early in their chosen careers.

As a starting point, every incoming freshman should be armed with two things: the average starting salary in several possible career fields and, second, his or her likely average monthly loan payment.

The information might be disappointing, but an early disappointment is more easily resolved than a crippling debt burden.

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