Blue Thoughts from a Red State: The High Cost of Higher Education

by Jesse Zerger Nathan on July 5, 2006

With news of Kansas University’s new-fangled, two-million dollar electron microscope dominating the front pages of the Lawrence Journal-World, it was easy to miss reported rumblings of a proposed increase in tuition at the university’s 17,000-student College of Liberal Arts, tucked neatly away in the paper’s B section. And while the Supreme Court began (once again) considering whether the obstinate Republicans who control the Kansas Congress had made good on last-year’s court-ordered funding increases for K-12 education statewide, all is not well in the world of higher education here—or anywhere else nationally, for that matter—when it comes to the price tag.

Claiming that tuition increases are “crucial for the future of the college,” incoming dean of the College of Liberal Arts Joseph Steinmetz argued recently for a significant increase in per-credit-hour rates. Two years—and two deans—ago, a similar push for an 18 percent tuition hike failed miserably. Primarily to renovate and build new buildings, students at the time opposed raising prices—strongly—in part because only a sliver of that money was destined for financial aid increases. This time around, Steinmetz and other officials are preparing for such opposition by painting the proposed price-jack with a pretty face: “I want to make sure that everybody is on the right page—from students right through to administrators,” Steinmetz explained. How Steinmetz plans to persuade students they ought to pay more for anything is unclear.

What’s more, this latest attempt by the University of Kansas at marking up the price of a degree popped up just before a scathing draft report released last week by the United States Department of Education decried the nation’s universities and colleges for everything from “meritocracy to mediocrity.” The panel, appointed last year by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, is vehement in its condemnations, particularly with regards to “rising costs, combined with a confusing, inadequate financial aid system, [which leaves] some students struggling to pay for education that, paradoxically, is of uneven and at times dubious quality.”

And Kansas University—a public institution—isn’t nearly the worst example. Around Kansas, and the rest of the country, private higher educational institutions, even those with Bill Gates-sized endowments (such as Grinnell College in Iowa) are consistently spiking the cost of tuition to ever-more unaffordable rates—rates that shut out an increasing number of education-debt ridden students. Stinginess aside, students are unlikely ever to line up behind the idea of higher costs for their higher education, right? The answer is yes, and obviously so—but so what? Are students and student-advocates really in the wrong to oppose incurring more layers of debt on their (usually) young backs?

According to the Columbus Dispatch earlier this month, fully two thirds of college students graduate with student loans, some so hefty that the Red Hot Chili Peppers will be a grandparents before they’re paid off. Determined by New York investment firm Alliance-Bernstein, this startling bit of information came from a survey of 1,500 18- to 35-year-old college graduates nationwide. Furthermore, this research, explained the Dispatch, “found that loan debt keeps young Americans from traveling some paths that typically are associated with adulthood, such as getting married and buying a house.”

Of most concern, however, is the notion that debt is not a short-term, character-building exercise—if it ever was—that involves a relatively quick period of poverty until the loans are paid off. “Loans are not just about four years of school,” added Alliance-Bernstein researcher Michael Conrath. “Graduates are living in a prolonged state of adolescence because the rites of passage into adulthood are on hold because of student-loan debt.” These debt-burdened graduates are forced to forgo internships, fellowships, alternative career opportunities and the general adventures of young adulthood because of ever-increasing debt and rising interest rates. “Those who graduated with no student-loan debt had, on average, $17,400 more in savings…[and] nine out of 10 survey respondents,” argued the Dispatch, “said graduating from college without debt was a ‘big advantage in life.’” Alliance Bernstein manager Jennifer DeLong agreed: “We expected recent graduates to struggle, but what we found is that it’s a long-term problem that goes beyond the first few years.”

So while the Wal-Mart of the debt world, Sallie Mae, ostensibly “helps” American youth get a college education, tens of thousands of graduates are learning the hard way that no education might be the better alternative if one seeks something of a normal life: a report cited by the Christian Science Monitor found that “38 percent of graduates held off buying their first house because of student loans, 14 percent put off marriage, and 21 percent delayed having children.” Some students wonder why an education is even worth the trouble—especially when a college degree is the high school diploma of the modern generation. “You really need a Master’s Degree to do anything these days anyway,” Andrew Gingerich, a debt-saddled Kansan explained. Paying three hundred dollars a month to the coffers of Sallie Mae on top of his monthly rent and other bill payments has left him with little for savings—let alone time to pursue something larger with his history degree. “We are the first society in history to take our brightest and start them out in debt,” Allan Carlson, of the Howard Center in Rockford, Illinois says. “That’s just stupid public policy. We should encourage them to grow, not hold them back.”

And America really is relatively alone in its blind allowance of such a situation. Whereas Canada and Europe, for instance, routinely make higher education funding a top priority, the United States continues to stymie its own intellectual and academic prowess. Writing for the Village Voice, Anya Kamenetz indicates that hundreds of thousands—175,000 in the 2002-2003 academic year, for instance—of young Americans are heading to Europe where perks like public education mean they can pursue higher education without burying themselves in debt. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, most Americans—like so many hoodwinked Kansans—associate life-improving, government-sponsored programs like public education, or even more student-loan support, with the S-word. (And that, by the way, is What’s the Matter With Kansas: the right convinced a populist prairie-land that socialism encompasses the social services that would make their lives better).

Make no mistake: education is costly and schools need to fill their coffers, especially in an age of meager government checks for social services like the facilitation of learning. The bottom line, however, is that an alarming number of students cannot afford higher education—and are therefore either not going to college, leaving the country or struggling well into their thirties just to pay off their diploma, before they can even start their career. As Dean Steinmetz—and other officials in a similar role around the country—consider raising tuition prices for the betterment of their particular schools, they would do well to realize that the real issue in American higher education is not the renovation of buildings or throwing up a new recreation center. Rather, the real concern is that the high cost of higher education is on the verge of making a diploma in this so-called nation of dreams a nightmare to achieve—yet another blow to the hammer driving a wedge between America’s haves and have-nots.

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