Publisher Kenneth Brown

What Can We Do About the Spiraling Cost of Higher Education?

As students head back to college, I am reminded of my introduction to a young lady named Charlee, who emigrated from Jamaica. Charlee pursued a post-graduate education at Morgan State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and went on to receive a master’s of science degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from Georgetown University.

With a goal to become a physician, Charlee was accepted at the highly competitive George Washington University School of Medicine as one of 176 students out of thousands of applicants. As you can imagine, her tuition bill is astronomical—$70,000 for the school year—and her $15,000 scholarship represents a drop in the bucket.

So, here we have an exceptional, talented individual who has a lot to contribute to society but is being blocked because of the high cost.

There are thousands of students like Charlee, many of them right in our community, with the brains, creativity and drive to do great things, such as discover a cure for cancer, build grand cities and advance technology, but could be hindered because of the rising cost to attend college or a trade school

What are we to do as a society?

The widening gap between the cost of higher education and the growth of household income is putting a damper on the college aspirations of millions of American families. Between the year 2000 and 2013 the average level of tuition and fees (excluding room and board) at a four-year public college skyrocketed by 87 percent. During that same time period, the median income for a middle-class American household rose 24 percent. As college costs rise faster than income, students and their families have had to borrow more money to make up the shortfall.

While the cost of providing an education has remained fairly stable, the cost that students pay keeps rising higher and higher, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

What it costs to educate a student hasn’t changed that much in the last 10 to 15 years. What has changed are state governments’ contributions to public colleges and universities. They have been cutting back. As schools receive less money, they are requiring students to pick up the difference.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, student loan debt has reached $1.2 trillion and $1 trillion of that is from federal loans.

For a country as wealthy as the United States, we seem to realize that our prosperity lies with the next generation. But why won’t we invest in the education of our young people? Here again, those who are wealthy will have access and those who are poor or marginalized will be kept out of this opportunity.

I can understand a parent’s frustration in that college education seems to be necessary, but unaffordable. Parents want our students to have the best opportunity for success, but must make the choice about whether it is worth putting themselves and their kids in debt, at a time when many are struggling financially themselves.

They also must battle that the public perception that a school with higher tuition means higher quality education. And, most people don’t know how to measure the quality of a college education but believe the more expensive, the better.

Certainly, colleges must take their share of the blame because to attract, particularly the wealthier students, they are building upscale dormitories and offering over-the-top amenities, such as rock climbing (I’m not sure what that has to do with learning) and state-of-the-art gyms. Let’s not forget the sports programs with the huge stadiums, high coaches’ salaries and perks. This approach puts the tuition out of reach for lower- and middle-income students.

The other thing driving up the costs of tuition is a situation similar to what happened with real estate. When money is easy to get, schools find they can jack up the price. Parents feel they have to pay it, and do, and the schools continue to raise tuition, room and board. Student loans are easily and readily available (think about the fact that banks and the government are lending money to a student who doesn’t have a job). Who gets told no for a student loan? Hardly anyone. This is possibly setting us up for the next economic bubble.

So, the kids go to school, get their degree, and unfortunately they are buried in a smothering mound of debt. Then, they find out that the jobs waiting for them aren’t the type of jobs that are providing the income they expect. As these students go on with their lives, they find it is an uphill battle to buy homes, and must put off getting married and starting a family. All this that affects the economy.

Are we going to be an educated society, or will only some have access to higher education?

If governments are prepared to pick up the cost in their budgets for public education through high school, why stop there? To me, it looks like a college degree is the new high school diploma. Why not pay through college, especially if the student earns good grades? Let’s eliminate the two-tier system of the haves and have nots.

Quite frankly, I’m not sure what the answer is. I just believe we need to keep this conversation about high debt front of mind for our community leaders, elected officials and education experts. In the meantime, let’s support our students’ future goals—be it college or career—the best way we can.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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