Economy, Regs, & Taxes

Back-to-School Tuition Woes Highlight Bigger Education Problems

Most American families with students preparing to attend college worry how they can possibly pay the freight.

Aug. 20, 2014

Most American families with students preparing to attend college worry how they can possibly pay the freight. Rightly so. College tuitions have been rising steadily by 3-4% annually since the Pell Grant was re-engineered by Jimmy Carter in 1978. Originally a program to assist low-income families with college expenses, Carter opened it to middle-class families as well. Now, federal aid to college is essentially an entitlement.

The College Board reports that a “moderate” college budget for an in-state public college for the 2013–2014 academic year averaged $22,826. A moderate budget at a private college averaged $44,750. Of course, these figures represent more than tuition, but they provide a clear picture of what the prospective college student faces. Costs can be reduced if a student is willing to stay at home, attend a nearby state school, take a full load of classes and work part-time during the summer – or better, all year. In that case, the cost drops to about $9,000 for in-state public schools, most of which can be paid for with the student’s earnings. Best of all, he or she won’t be shouldering a massive burden of debt for the next 20 years.

The debt aspect of the issue is perhaps the most difficult to understand. We know there are exceptions, but parents love their children. They’ve sacrificed 18 years to help them mature sufficiently enough to handle the adult world. College is hardly the adult world, but once school’s over, it’s at hand. That’s the very time in their lives when they should be as unencumbered as possible, to be able to direct their lives as they think best, and, yet, every year millions of parents send their child off to school knowing that when it’s completed, there’s an ugly reality to face. It almost seems like a perverse game: Get them excited about earning a degree and then hit them with the bill when it’s finished.

The federal aid to college racket – that’s what it’s become – has many of the earmarks of failed federal programs. While many students do indeed graduate, most will be making payments on their loans for years. Payments are deferred while students are in college, but once grads pass the golden doors, the first payment is due. And repayment plans can vary tremendously, depending on the program used to obtain the money as well as the actual lender. Whether the grad’s employed or unemployed, the bill comes due every month, and the term can last from 10 to 25 years. The word “term” is most apropos, for the debt is much like a prison sentence.

Some students are their own worst enemies. The dropout rate is rising, and while it’s doubtful the IRS will ever chase them down for what they owe, the system reinforces the negative values of ignoring responsibilities. At the very least, grants should be awarded only to students with a real track record of success. However, banks have a federal gun at their collective heads to lend freely, so without major reform, injudicious lending practices will continue driving the federal loan machine.

This week Barack Obama gave his weekly address on his plans to help ever more young people attend college. Part of that plan involves increased financial aid. Yet he says, “[A]s long as college costs keep rising, we can’t just keep throwing money at the problem.” College costs are rising because the federal government keeps throwing money at the problem.

As with any federally dispersed money, corruption – at least moral corruption – is part of the game. Universities in the 1950s were modest in appearance and earnest in academic goals. By comparison, the modern mega-versity – with its multitude of “schools,” monumental buildings that cover a city block, luxurious multi-gender dormitories, plush student lounges and gigantic sports facilities – resembles more a Roman complex honoring the gods than a place of quiet study, debate and learning.

Furthermore, as more people go to college, the standards fall lower. Many studies have shown that today’s graduates know far less than those of a generation ago. That’s little wonder when courses include The Science of Superheroes instead of useful information. Meanwhile, the grade awarded most frequently in college is “A.” That should strike anyone as wrong.

In 1950, only a small percentage of the population went to college. We don’t advocate a return to that time, but, on the other hand, making college a virtual life requirement from birth is excessive. Universities once had strict requirements for admission. Today they admit people without ninth grade skills, setting them up for failure. People with a desire to learn and find a career path right for them should go to community or technical college. Perhaps one of the key answers to the problem of rising tuition is to rethink the popularity of college. All men are created equal, just not guaranteed equal results.

Click here to show comments

Subscribe! It's Right. It's Free.