Higher Education: Soaring Rhetoric, Skyrocketing Costs

Over the past several years, the mantra of “college for all” has become ubiquitous, with Americans told that a college education is no longer a luxury, but a necessity, for any individual who aspires to a middle-class life in the 21st century economy.  And indeed, many studies tend to confirm that persons with a post-secondary education enjoy  lower unemployment rates and higher wages over time

Simultaneously – sometimes in the same articles – we learn that soaring tuition rates have put college out of the reach of many, if not most, families.  In fact, for the past few decades, college costs have been rising faster than health care costs.  In the last year or so, the news is that students who tried to borrow their way around this seemingly intractable problem only dug themselves a deeper hole. Outstanding student college loans have reached – or soon will reach – the $1 trillion mark.

The average student graduates college with a debt burden of nearly $25,000; others, especially those with professional degrees, are buckling under a debt load in the six figures. Since bankruptcy forgiveness does not apply to student debt, even unemployed and underemployed graduates can expect to carry this debt with them for years, perhaps decades, to come. With a slow economy exacerbating the problem, it’s no surprise to find that the national student loan default rate for 2009 (the last year for which data are available) was 8.8 percent and rising. At for-profit schools, the rate was 15 percent.

One alternative, of course, is to rely on parents for help with college. Unfortunately, this has resulted in an emerging crisis for seniors, a growing number of whom go into retirement saddled with the debt they incurred in putting their children through college.  Combined with the poor economy, rising tuition rates are forcing parents to rethink what sort of support they can offer their children who plan to attend college. A recent CBS-New York Times poll found that 40 percent of parents have been forced to “alter expectations” for the kind of college their children will be able to attend.  Others can no longer afford to provide any support.

A second alternative is to adjust our notion of what  “college” means.  We could urge students to focus on more practical job-related higher education such as that found in community colleges, apprenticeship programs and technical training leading to skill certifications.  Those who start with these options can still continue on for the standard four year degree if they want to, but in the meantime they will have the skills they need for a good job. Yet, the economy is taking a toll here as well. Cuts in state government funding have resulted in rapidly escalating costs and severe shortages in seats, just at the time that demand for these programs is greatest.

And, of course, a third alternative is for kids to try to work their way through college, or at least work to supplement the available parental support. I did this. For my working-class parents, there was no choice. I  have impressed on my own son the value of combining work and school. It can help our youth start off strong, instilling them with some confidence, a sense of accomplishment, and some financial independence. I believe that. The problem is that it was possible for me because I worked a good union job on a factory floor, at a time when those jobs were relatively plentiful and well paid. Where these jobs still exist, they aren’t so easy to get, even for experienced adults, let alone for a college kid.

So, go to college, and get saddled with crippling debt; don’t go, and face a future of dwindling economic opportunity.

Feeling the need to do something, President Obama issued an executive order late in 2011 than would cap student loan repayments at 10 percent of income, rather than the current 15 percent, and forgive all student debt after 20 years. Seems like a nice gesture, but as some critics point out, it doesn’t address those skyrocketing costs. And while some reformers urge widespread adoption of distance learning as a cost-cutter, there are many unresolved questions and issues remaining with the distance learning approach, despite some optimism from educators  about its future.

So what is to be done? There are no easy answers here. But I would suggest that politicians and policy specialists who trumpet “college for all” out of one side of their mouths and “cut education budgets” out of the other, might want to align their messages with reality. Or just shut up.

- Randall Garton


Why does the cost of college continue to rise? What is the teaching load of the professors? Could each professor teach an additional class to reduce the amount of money spent on the payroll?


Thanks for writing….a recent study by the Delta Cost Project, and reviewed by U.S. News found that “rising spending on administrators, student support services, and the need to make up for reductions in government subsidies … “ is largely responsible for driving up tuition costs, at least at state institutions. (student support services generally are programs designed to improve the graduation rates and overall academic success of students who are typically from disadvantaged backgrounds, are disabled, or who otherwise face significant challenges). Classroom instruction is becoming a smaller piece of the budget education pie at these places. The picture is completely different at private colleges. In this context, it seems to me that taking on an additional class or two would have little impact on this crisis. The idea that most teachers are not teaching very full loads at this point is also based on an image of faculty at top-tier (usually private) schools. You can find the study and the article at the links above. – Randall Garton