It’s time to address cost of college
When I graduated from college, I had about $10,000 in student loan debt.
This seemed like a perfectly reasonable amount to me, considering how much it cost to attend my alma mater — about $30,000 each year. At the time, the eye-popping sticker price meant nothing to me. The day when I would begin paying off my loans seemed light years away, and I was fairly confident everything would turn out fine.
But if I went to college today, I doubt I’d have the same confidence, although 18-year-olds are full of unearned confidence, so you never know.
In the 15 years since I went to college, tuition has soared, as has student loan debt.
Today, the average U.S. college student graduates with about $29,400 in debt, according to the Institute for College Access & Success’ Project on Student Debt.
The cost of college is something I’ve been concerned about for some time, but my thoughts recently returned to the topic as a result of the uproar over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s controversial proposal to provide prison inmates with access to college courses. Critics want to know how the governor can justify giving criminals a free education when so many hard-working, law-abiding students are taking on huge debt loads to obtain their bachelor’s degrees. If inmates want to attend college, they should take out loans like everybody else, the critics say.
But I’d like to examine the issue from another angle, and ask when it became acceptable to charge students through the nose for their education and burden them with crippling debt. Why does college cost so much? And I’m not just talking about fancy private schools. In 2004, undergraduate tuition for a year at a SUNY school was $4,350; today, it’s $5,870 — a 34.9 percent increase. Have New Yorkers seen their salaries increase that much over the past decade? I think we all know the answer to question.
Of course, the real price of SUNY tuition, when you factor in fees and room and board, is closer to $23,000. To the average middle-class family (not to mention the average low-income family), that is a lot of money — too much money, really.
There are indications that outstanding student loan debt is becoming unsustainable, and possibly a drag on the economy.
Between the end of 2011 and May 2013, cumulative student loan debt in the U.S. increased a whopping 20 percent, topping $1.2 trillion, according to the federal government. Americans now owe more on their student loans than credit cards or auto loans. And more people are defaulting: In the fourth quarter of 2013, 11.5 percent of students loans were at least 90 days behind in payments.
At this point, it’s worth considering the consequences of saddling young adults with so much debt.
In a recent article in the New Republic, writer David Dayen suggests that fewer young adults are buying houses and cars, and that while the lackluster economy is likely a factor, it’s also possible that student loans are having an effect. He notes that 30-year-olds without student loans are more likely to have a mortgage if they aren’t paying off student loans.
“What if college graduates simply expect to spend their first decades ‘in the real world’ shackled with debt and struggling to get by?” Dayen writes. “Without clearer data, we won’t know the truth. But there’s no question that the finances of college graduates are more strained now than at practically any point in our history. Forty million Americans start out their working lives with a massive debt burden, and the salary they can earn out of college — if they can get a job at all — simply isn’t enough to keep up.”
Colleges and universities like to point out that many students receive financial aid, which means they do not pay the full price of college.
And while this is true, I wonder if the existence of financial aid lets colleges and universities off the hook for their exorbitant prices, and their failure to keep them in check.
I’m glad Cuomo’s prison education proposal has awoken our legislators to the difficulty of funding a college education. The next step, as I see it, is a statewide conversation on how to make New York’s public schools more affordable, followed by meaningful proposals on how to reduce costs and student debt. College costs too much money, and it’s time to do something about it.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.