It is impossible to have a conversation with a student about college without, at some point, discussing cost. It is a peculiarly ubiquitous phenomenon considering that, generally speaking, in this country, issues of money, along with politics and religion, are only spoken about in private, hushed tones. The increasing rise of tuition, however, has ensured that affording a college education has become a burden for the vast majority of Americans. However, this is not just someone’s problem, it is everyone’s. When deciding on a school to attend this past spring, an admissions officer told me regarding the financial feasibility of an undergraduate education, “The one thing I can guarantee you about the future is that tuition will go up.”
The cost of a college degree has increased by more than 1,120 percent since 1978. It is increasing at a rate much faster than inflation, faster even than medical spending. The more tuition rises, the harder it is for students to meet that need and the more they have to borrow. These facts paint a dire picture. Two thirds of students graduating from American colleges and universities are doing so with some level of debt. The student loan debt currently stands at $1.2 trillion. Wages for college graduates have actually plummeted over the past decade and the unemployment rate for recent grads is 10%, with more than two million recent grads currently unemployed.
As Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan stated during a recent Senate hearing, “Student debt could very well prevent millions of Americans from fully participating in the economy or ever achieving financial security.” She’s right for the simple reason that paying off a large amount of debt is a fundamentally difficult task, one that leaves grads desperately working dead-end jobs to pay bills, never mind their ability to purchase a car or put down money for a mortgage or genuinely invest in the economy. A graduate student at Michigan State University recently aggregated national wage and tuition statistics and found that the average student in 1979 could work 182 hours (a part-time summer job) to pay for a year’s tuition. In 2013, it took 991 hours (a full-time job for half the year) to accomplish the same. That’s just tuition—not room and board, which, according to the College Board, exceed tuition by a little over 100%.
This much is clear, though: the only thing worse than graduating college with a gargantuan mountain of debt is not graduating at all. College graduates earn, on average, 50 percent more than high school graduates and 114 percent more than those without a high school diploma. Going to college is, economically speaking, becoming a mandate. And that’s the issue.
We are trapped. From a very young age, we are promised a grand vision of freedom and intellectual exploration that caters to our needs. We are told that, unlike previous generations, we have the privilege of pursuing whatever we want and learning for the sake of learning. It’s a wholehearted, red-blooded American promise. But this is where our system falls apart. Ultimately, it fails to deliver. We live in a society that demands we pursue education and innovation, punishes us when we inevitably do, then systematically bleeds us dry of our resources as we attempt to apply the skills we’ve learned.
Student debt is increasingly hard to pay off. Fourteen percent of borrowers have at least one past due student loan account. The value of defaulted loans in this country? $8 billion. And these aren’t lazy, leeching joyriders, either. These are the best and brightest our country has to offer, the individuals who have harnessed some of our country’s highest markers of personal achievement… and yet they struggle to pay its price. For those who do manage to keep up with their payments, well, they face the burden of being in debt for their entire adult lives. Literally. The Washington Post has reported that $36 billion in loan debt is held by people over 60 years old.
Leaving this crisis unchecked means fewer and fewer Americans believing in the ideological promise of this country—that with hard work, opportunity abounds, that pushing the boundaries of what you can do through education is not only admirable, but feasible. It leaves college graduates discouraged and defeated and it will prevent an increasing amount of Americans from even attempting to pursue their education. Student debt only made sense when the promise was that getting a college degree meant you would eventually make enough money to pay it off… not that you would work a job for the sole purpose of paying off your debt. That’s counterintuitive and demeaning. In short, the value of education in the U.S. is not being matched by its price, and that is the crux of our student debt crisis. Value is the operative word.
I recently made the decision to transfer from a large public university to a small private liberal arts college. At the public university I was paying less for my education, but without upper-class parents available to aid my way through their extensive social networks, I was forced to deal with academic advisors who were either overworked or unable to assist me correctly. As a result, I took courses I didn’t need to and wasted money and time. I lacked direction and they lacked guidance, often misdirecting me or sending me on derivative, narrow-minded paths, and I watched my education slowly slip away from me. The college I decided to transfer to is more student-centric, has a foundational core of academic engagement, and places a higher emphasis on inter-disciplinary studies. However, it is also, realistically, too expensive for my family and will leave me with a sizeable amount of debt. In order to pursue my studies, I had to compromise on value.
It is time this country seriously reconsiders the way it finances higher education. If we don’t, what we risk losing in the process is financial stability, job security, and our very definition of success. We have a number of options: we either settle for paying our professors and administrators less, somehow make a college education more valuable and our colleges more productive, invest more taxpayer money in paying off the cost of education, or start holding schools accountable for student failure. This much is clear: we must do something.
Education is no longer this country’s great equalizer. It doesn’t lift up those in need and give resources to all indiscriminately. It forces the brightest individuals of our nation’s most economically vital generation to sacrifice endlessly in the pursuit of a broken promise.
Bidwell, Allie. “Why Student Debt Won’t Cause the Economy to Collapse.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 4 Aug. 2014. Web. 04 Aug. 2014.
Carey, Kevin. “What’s Driving College Costs Higher?” NPR. NPR, 26 June 2012. Web. 05 Aug. 2014.
Features, Forbes Special. “How The $1.2 Trillion College Debt Crisis Is Crippling Students, Parents And The Economy.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 07 Aug. 2013. Web. 04 Aug. 2014.
Martin, Andrew, and Andrew W. Lehren. “A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 May 2012. Web. 05 Aug. 2014.
Narula, Svati Kirsten. “The Myth of Working Your Way Through College.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 01 Apr. 2014. Web. 02 Aug. 2014.
Ritchie, Jason. “Student Debt: Paying Back the American Dream.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 04 Aug. 2014. Web. 05 Aug. 2014.
Salam, Reihan. “Colleges Should Pay a Fine When Students Default.” Slate Magazine. The Slate Group, 11 June 2014. Web. 05 Aug. 2014.
Surowiecki, James. “Debt By Degrees – The New Yorker.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 21 Nov. 2011. Web. 05 Aug. 2014.
Image Credit: Fleshman, Michael. “The occupation of the clock tower at NYC’s historic Cooper Union college.” Flickr: Creative Commons. Flickr, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2014. <https://flic.kr/p/dzYUsS>.