Thursday, October 28, 2010

Not surprisingly, the AP reports that college costs are rising

Earning the award for the least-shocking news of the day is today's AP story claiming that college tuition costs are rising.

According to the article,
At public four-year schools, many of them ravaged by state budget cuts, average in-state tuition and fees this fall rose 7.9 percent, or $555, to $7,605, according to the College Board's "Trends in College Pricing." The average sticker price at private nonprofit colleges increased 4.5 percent, or $1,164, to $27,293.
Though the news is far from unexpected, it is worrisome. While political bigwigs and financial experts (like the folks from the National Bureau of Economic Research) claim that the recession officially ended last summer, regular folks just aren't seeing it. Prices are still high, millions are out of work, and most people are still pinching pennies. When families are weighing whether to spend what little money they have left on house payments or food, they aren't thinking about college for their kids. The cost of college seems an enormous expense for many families, making a college degree an unattainable goal for their children.

While I believe that college is not for everyone, I do believe that everyone should have access to education. Anyone who wants to go to college should have the ability to do so without taking on catastrophic amounts of debt. The Project on Student Debt recently released information stating that the average college graduate has $24,000 in student loan debt. Of course, many students wind up with even greater debt. In addition, the statistic does not include the thousands of students who take on student loan debt and find themselves unable to finish college. In particular, it is those students who are pushed out of school due to rising costs that I most worry about. Those students end up with large amounts of debt and nothing to show for it.

Paying off student loans and trying to earn a decent wage becomes a vicious cycle for those who were unable to complete their degrees due to rising costs. When a student drops out of college, his or her loans soon go into repayment status. The student must then work to raise enough money to pay off the debts, but is unlikely to find a decent-paying job without a degree. Without a decent-paying job, the former student is less likely to repay the debt. The student may then try to take out more loans to obtain a degree, which will, theoretically, earn him enough money to pay off his student loans. The cycle then repeats itself.

The problem of students taking on debt without completing degrees is easiest to spot at our nation's community colleges. Though community college offers a more-affordable option for many students, their costs have also been steadily climbing. Combine higher costs with students who may be following a nontraditional path through college (night school, part-time classes, etc.), and you wind up with students who take on debt, but don't graduate. In fact, only 40% of community college students complete their programs, while many students take five or six years to complete two-year degrees. Regardless of whether or not a student completes his or her degree, any student loan debt must be paid off. In fact, most student loans are not forgiven even if the borrower files for bankruptcy.

These days, you need some form of higher education to get a decent-paying job. Whether that education comes from college, trade school, or an apprenticeship, it is becoming apparent that in order to make money you need an education. But in order to get an education, you need money. Quite frankly, fewer and fewer people are finding themselves able to keep up with the rising costs of college. Higher education was once a luxury for the rich, and if we're not careful, we'll be back to that model before we know it. The costs of higher education (even at public schools) are already edging out the poor and middle class folks. What will happen once only the richest can afford college?

With large amounts of debt and low rates of employment, students may start to believe that college is not worth the expense. When people become disillusioned with higher education, it affects the nation. Fewer people find decent-paying jobs, lower- and middle-class earners find themselves getting more and more frustrated, college costs rise because of a poor economy and fewer students, and we end up with a population that is angry, uneducated, and unable to do much about it.

The bottom line? We must put an end to the upward trajectory of college costs. Americans at all income brackets need access to college. By educating our students we are investing in the future of the nation. We need people from all socioeconomic statuses and a variety of backgrounds to run the country, with its schools, banks, public works, and companies in need of quality workers. A diverse workforce is a happy workforce, and to find a place in that workforce, people need to have access to higher education.

There must come a point where the cost of a college education does not overshadow the benefits of that education. We need to reach a place where people who earn college degrees can count on earning enough at work to pay off their student loans. The rising costs of college are doing nothing to convince the public that the recession is over, and the fastest way to wind up in another recession is to scare people into not spending, not investing.

Simply put, in order to inspire people to invest in the fiscal health of our nation, we must invest in the education of our people. To do so, we must cut the costs of college and make education affordable for everyone.