This is a community conversation with Jim Kiger about higher education and economics. This is one of several ongoing conversations to bring local voices into reporting issues important to Ohio residents and their communities.
Federal loan debt for students in the United States seeking higher education is now more than $1 trillion. According to official U.S. government data, more than half of the $1 trillion originates from student loans through the Department of Education and the rest is borrowed by students through private bank loans.
Federal student loans, unlike grant money, must be paid back by the borrower, but there is a growing number of more than 8 million people who have defaulted on their student loan payments. The number of people who defaulted on their student loans grew by 1 million in 2016 alone. This has economists worried that student loan debt will cause an economic crash in the near future similar to what happened to the economy in 2008 when the housing market crashed.
One reason that there is so much student debt is due to the rising cost of tuition. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the rate of inflation for tuition rises faster than the rate of general inflation. The cost of higher education has increased by 38 percent since 2006, according to the College Board.
For example, in the 1950s the cost for one year of schooling at Morehead College was $500. Jim Kiger, a lawyer who has been practicing law in Washington Court House for 55 years, attended Morehead College for his undergraduate studies.
Kiger said Morehead College grew out of a tiny institution with less than 100 students back then to enrolling over 10,000 students today (The institution is now known as Morehead State University.)
The cost for one year of schooling at Morehead State University today? About $20,246.
Another factor for the increasing student loan debt is that wage growth for workers in the United States, when adjusted for inflation, has lost purchasing power over the past two decades.
When Kiger was a undergraduate student at Morehead College, he worked in the summer for an hourly wage of $3 per hour. The current minimum wage is just $7.25 an hour. Thirty percent of full-time workers earn a wage near the federal minimum wage level of $7.25, according to the Pew Research Center in 2015.
After graduating from Morehead College, Kiger went to the University of Kentucky for a master’s degree in business and economics and then to law school at the University of Cincinnati.
Today a majority of young people move to pursue education and careers in economically vital urban settings instead of remaining in their small hometowns. This has contributed to a shift in some rural economies—as population and economic growth declines, unemployment and poverty rates rise.
Kiger graduated from law school in December of 1961 and after passing the Ohio Bar Exam in March of 1962, he and his wife, Ann, moved to rural Fayette County, Ohio and built their law business together.
In a recent discussion Kiger talked about higher education and a few of his experiences. Kiger has written and published two books: “Court House: A Journey of 50 Years in the Law” published in 2012 and “Court Street: A Street in Time” in 2015.
Something you wrote about in your book is that today it is much easier for people to get into law school but maybe that’s not always a good thing. Can you say more about that?
Jim Kiger: Not all people should be lawyers. The [Ohio Bar Exam] is not as hard. They told us you only got to take the bar twice in those days and if you failed it the second time, you were out. Now they’ve lessened those rules and now you can take it as many times as you want to until you pass it, as far as I know. The whittling out to get into school was much more difficult than it is today and then when you got in, you expected to get thrown out. You lived under that terror because they told us that first day, stand up. Out of 50 [people] in this auditorium, look at all sides of you because one of you is not going to be here next year. You’re not kidding, and that was your whole life.
But you made it.
Jim Kiger: I was never in doubt. I wanted to be a lawyer. My wife was so tolerant. We were young. We knew where we wanted to go in life and a lot of hinged on me being out there and making it in school.
Those professors were really great. One of my professors was Irving Rutter, a graduate of Cornell. He was really educated and he practiced law but he was a law clerk to one of the most famous court of appeal judges in the world in upper New York State. They had this course called Legal Drafting and he printed this print-out of a cow. He called this “Bessie the cow” and he said, “When you learn to think like a lawyer, you apply the ladder of abstraction,” and he would go down the list of about 20 of us in the class and he would say, “What do you see when you see Bessie the cow?”
Some people would say, well I see this or I see that. Old me, I said, well, I see money. And he’d look, and he’d say, “Well, there’s one mercenary guy but he’s right: Bessie the cow is money.”
That’s what we went through with. We wrote these papers and he was so astute and he graded them and they’d called you in and they cajoled you, they did everything, but they were molding us.
That was just a few of my experiences in school but those are the people you never forget. There’s a new philosophy out in the modern day law school. They take in many more and it’s kind of a mechanical process. The LSATs (Law School Admission Tests) are controlled. If you make high scores on your LSATs, that means probably you’re going to get into some school. They’re more prone not to whittle people out.
Something else you wrote about in your book, that I think is really remarkable, is that to pay for your annual college tuition bill you worked delivering milk as a milkman. You were able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, so-to-speak.
Jim Kiger: I spent the first year in college and my dad paid for it. In undergraduate school, it was virtually nothing—$500 a year. They scrounged it up because we were on the edge of the depression. World War II had come and people were just getting out of the Great Depression.
When I came home from the university I can still see my mother and my father picking me up in this little Chevy pick-up. I had everything packed, and I knew I wanted to come back, but times were hard out there. [My father] said, “Well, I got you a job this summer. I got you a job delivering milk.”
I was driving a little milk truck where I put little bottles of milk on people’s door step at $3 an hour. I’d work and I made the money. I made $500. I went back the second summer and they wanted me back—my boss liked me, he knew I was going places, and they wanted me to come back that year. I came back and I sold ice cream and I made $1,200. I would drive my old ice cream truck and plug in at the county fairs and I just made all kinds of money because he gave me a commission.
I worked two years driving the little vans. It didn’t hurt me at all. As a matter of fact, you learn how to meet the public, meet people, and if you keep your eyes open, you can learn a lot.
So you worked through the summer to pay for your college tuition. Things have certainly changed since then. If students today could work in the summer and make enough money to pay for tuition, that today is easily $20,000 a year, would they even need a degree if they were making that much money? What do you think about that?
Jim Kiger: I’m a great believer in lowering the cost of college tuition. I think it’s just completely overblown. It has been motivated by the free student loans, in our opinion. Every time Congress enacts something to do with student loans or creates baskets of money for the nation, all the young people want to take advantage of that, and they don’t see the pitfalls of that, or if they do, they ignore them, and the universities see that and they just raise the tuition.
Of course, the costs of operating has created another climate out there to keep the universities really hustling but student loans and the availability of free federal money has just increased the costs of tuition. I think, and I firmly believe this, that every young person who wants a higher education and is willing to work and sacrifice to get it should have that opportunity. They should have that opportunity because today a bachelor’s of science is equivalent in my day to a high school diploma. You gotta have it and you gotta want it even if you have to wait tables or work at the university. My wife and I worked.
I think every young person who wants an education in this country should be afforded the opportunity. We need to lower the price of that education. We need to really prepare kids in elementary and high school, and that opportunity should be there.
You wrote a little bit in your book about how you were just starting out after law school in Washington Court House in 1962 and your suit jacket was threadbare. You would turn the collar around so people could not see it. To know that wasn’t your end, and to know that you still had a long way to go—how did you know? What got you through that?
Jim Kiger: I only had the one jacket. We just didn’t have any money to buy. What I really wanted was a pair of shoes. Wade’s shoe store was up here at the corner. I drove past there and, oh my God, you know, it’d be $25 or $30 for a pair of shoes but I just didn’t have the money and I made due with what I got.
I think young people, and I’m very high on the young people in this country, they have a lot going for them. I see a lot of young people have problems coming up for drugs and what have you, but those people do not represent the majority of young people in this country and you’ve got to have a goal in life. Each one of us had a goal. I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to be out in the trenches. I wanted to be in court and I wanted to work with people.
Is making sure you’re frugal still an important thing today for young people to consider, considering the availability of student loans and credit?
Jim Kiger: Yes. Everybody has two or three of everything, even at the universities. You can do with a lot less and utilize the facilities. You have to learn to utilize the facilities. Universities have everything to offer these kids.
When I was in college and especially at the University of Cincinnati, I learned to utilize the facilities that the school had to offer. That school turns out luminaries. I mean, really great people. But each one of us had a goal and we worked to achieve that goal and we went after it and got it. That’s the same way today. You can come from the poorest economic strata in the country but if you want to be a CEO of P&G—go for it. Go for it.
I think that’s an important message to send to young people today. There’s the drug use but there’s more economic disparity among classes and the “bootstraps college kid” has disappeared. That disparity was obviously there when you were in school, too, but you were able to persevere.
Jim Kiger: Absolutely. I said, “This is where we’re going,” so it didn’t bother me that my coat was threadbare or my shoes had holes in them because I knew sooner or later I was going to make some money and ultimately I could go to get myself a coat made but it was way out in the future. I knew that sooner or later it was going to happen because if you—in the business world—if you are honest, tell it like it is, you’re fair, and you do the very best job that you can do, it does not mean you’re going to win every case, but if you have those traits and you’re punctual and you want to achieve your goal, you can take those four traits and pull yourself up.
In the epilogue of your book you wrote a story about Peter V. Jones, a captain in George Washington’s Continental Army who settled in Fayette County. Why?
Jim Kiger: After the war, they gave him his deed, John Adams signed it, and he took his rifle and his dog and his wagon and his children and he came through the mountains and he settled 740 acres on Creek Road. But he was in a wilderness that was a true wilderness and that’s all that he had.
I concluded that all of you young people are in a wilderness just as awesome today as Peter V. Jones. But if he made it, why can’t you make it? You can. You just gotta say, “Hey, this is where I’m going in life.” There are so many opportunities in this country now. I honestly feel we should look carefully at the costs at the universities. There is no way that…some places, they want $55,000 a year. Come on!
You mentioned the need to have an economic revolution. From the way that you described Washington Court House in the 1960s to today, a lot of the businesses have closed and the local economy shrunk. What would an economic revolution look like on the local level?
Jim Kiger: Oh, yes. In my opinion it’s a combination of a lot of things.
If you’ve got something you want to promote, you’ve got to sell it, you’ve got to go out, you’ve got to say, “Hey you want to come to Washington Court House because it’s a great place, and you want to support it, and you don’t have to go to the box stores because there’s charming people and nice little boutique stores,” and so on and so forth.
You gotta make it into a community that really says, “Oh my God I don’t want to go anyplace else.”
There are occasions you have to, but we kind of missed that opportunity. We let our buildings go into decay and we need to evaluate our zoning laws to make it easier for you to build a new building and decorate it, and what have you, and go out and get grants. I hope the city has one and the county has a grant, they need a grant person.
We remember the days you couldn’t get a parking spot downtown. Now these lots are only about 40 percent capacity because it just isn’t here. But believe me, this could be one of the most charming, attractive small communities in this part of the United States if we would just look at it.
You sound like you have a vision for it.
Jim Kiger: I have ideas of what should be done. We also have to temper those ideas in a lot of our culture out here. People want good services, they want to be treated respectfully and they want to be safe and they want to grow. Young people, your generation, want to climb the ladder. To do so, you just have to say, “Hey, look, this is how it’s going to be.”
This article is part of an ongoing Record-Herald series, Conversations in Communities, that focus on bringing local and diverse voices to the front pages on issues important to Ohioans. Follow the Record-Herald online at www.recordherald.com and on Twitter @recordherald to see more conversations in the community.