For many years, people have debated about the fairness of the rapid rise of college tuition. Most families simply cannot afford the high price tag of university education. In this economy, ensuring a career after high school means having a college degree. At first glance, it may seem like the value of college education far exceeds any dollar amount. Yet, this perception fails to take into account the students and parents responsible for paying the exorbitant tuition and fees. Moreover, the fairness of tuition prices has come into question. Is it reasonable to expect a family earning minimum wage to send children to a school that costs more than they can afford in order to guarantee a better life for those children? Furthermore, after graduation, a majority of students are left with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. This debt will last throughout their lives, lengthening the time between graduation and marriage, having children, buying houses, and even retirement. Once we understand the great financial pressure placed on students and their families, we will begin to see the answer does not lie in government grants or school loans. If we expect easier access to higher education in America, tuition must be lowered.
According to the College Board, 47% of all full-time undergraduate college students attend a four-year college that charges less than $9,000 per year for tuition and fees. On the other hand, private four-year colleges cost an average of $35,000 per school year for tuition and fees (College Board). How did the tuition soar to such an excessive amount? Compared to the 1981 costs of $1,504 a year, the College of William and Mary in 2006 cost $32,433 (Archibald and Feldman 5-6). Nationally, between the 1987-88 academic year and the 2007-8 year, tuition and fees rose by 7.4% at public four-year schools and by 6.3% at private four-year schools (6). Moreover, the inflation rate “over this period averaged a mere 3.1 percent per year” (7). Comparatively speaking, the average United States employee earns $42,048 a year (World Salaries). If a typical family wanted to send a child to a private college, they would only have $7,048 to spend on other things such as food, mortgages, and utilities, assuming the family even earns the national average. Additionally, according to the CIA World Factbook, the average American family includes approximately two children. Thus, the total average college tuition cost for a family is $70,000. Obviously, the ratio of rising tuition prices to average American income is disproportionate. It is both unrealistic and unfair to expect students and their families to come up with such funds, especially those with lower incomes.
Though the majority of the more than 1,500 nonprofit colleges and universities in America are open admission, or available to “anyone with a high school diploma,” these colleges do not include the fact they are less “open,” from a financial point of view in their recruitment brochures (McPherson and Schapiro 7). Most private colleges limit admission to students according to a family’s ability to pay (7). This is done by rejecting applicants with low incomes and instead accepting applicants with higher incomes and weaker academic qualifications (7). Other institutions practice the same thing in a less direct fashion by admitting low income students but denying them sufficient financial aid to attend (7). The problem does not lie in the morals of the admission board; it simply comes down to the amount of money needed to continue to operate (McPherson and Schapiro 7). But how much money do colleges truly need?
About one quarter (26.4%) of total college expenditures are for “compensation of the people directly engaged in instruction and departmental research” (Bowen 8). The rest of the money earned by colleges from tuition and fees is spent on equipment, books, financial aid, and capital costs (7). Overall, most colleges are beginning to spend more of their money on athletics, student life and health services, parking and transportation, and repair and replacement (Deitrick). For example, at the Christopher Newport University, the Intercollegiate Athletics and Intramurals consumes most of students’ tuition dollars, receiving a budget of $5.3 million just for this year, an increase of $362,151 (Deitrick). This large allocation of money to athletics has to do with the rising cost of sports. The average football team has gone from 82 to 102 players, while the number of women’s sports teams has also risen (Dreifus and Hacker). Since 1980, the number of women’s soccer programs has ascended from 80 to 956 (Dreifus and Hacker). These teams cost a great amount of money. For example, Varsity golf at Duke costs about $20,405 per player per year (Dreifus and Hacker). Additionally, because there are no revenues for most sports, athletics have to be covered by tuitions, whether the students participate in sports or not (Dreifus and Hacker). Though athletics bring great school spirit and alumni donations to winning colleges, non-athletes should not have to foot the enormous bill. Another reason college tuitions are rising is administration. Since 1980, the “number of administrators per student at colleges has about doubled” (Dreifus and Hacker). Due to the fact that these schools do not need such high tuitions, it should be possible for them to lower prices.
The fact that most of the extra charges are not going directly towards education should shock applicants, especially since the cost of college now will affect their financial decisions in the near future. According to the New York Times article, “Burden of College Loans on Graduates Grows,” by Tamar Lewin, student loan debt outpaced credit card debt for the first time last year, and is even likely to reach a trillion dollars this year. Nearly two-thirds of twenty to thirty year olds carry some college loan debt, and many of these young people have taken on more in the past five years (Fetterman and Hansen). Nearly half of people with college debt have stopped paying, forcing lenders to sell it to a collection agency (Fetterman and Hansen). Other lenders have taken a more forceful approach, repossessing debtors’ cars or placing leans on houses (Fetterman and Hansen). Unlike other debt, student loans usually cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, and the government can even, “garnish wages or take tax refunds or Social Security payments to recover the money owed” (Lewin). The default rate for federal student loans rose to 13.8% in 2008 from 11.8% in 2007 (Korn and Pilon). Overall, those in their twenties owe about $20,000 on average in student-loan debt (Fetterman and Hansen). According to Tamara Draut, author of Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30- Somethings Can’t Get Ahead, “This debt-for-diploma system is strangling our young people right when they’re starting out in life. It’s creating a sense of futility that no matter what they do, they’re not going to be able to get ahead. It’s a sense of hopelessness.” A poll of young adults in their twenties by USA TODAY and the National Endowment for Financial Education found 60% feel they are facing tougher financial pressures than young people did in previous generations; and 30% say they frequently worry about their debt (Fetterman and Hansen). Not only does this debt affect young people emotionally, it affects their living and career decisions as well.
Of those surveyed, 22% say they have accepted a job position they otherwise would not have because they needed the money to pay off loan debt (Fetterman and Hansen). Additionally, 29% say they have put off or chosen not to enter into more education because of their undergraduate debt, and 26% have put off purchasing a home (Fetterman and Hansen). Student loan debt has even affected marriage and having children, as young people realize they simply do not have the funds for such milestones in life (Fetterman and Hansen). Furthermore, more and more graduates are moving back in with their parents to cut costs. In the 2000 Census, more than 25% of 18 to 34 year olds had moved back in with family solely for financial reasons (Fetterman and Hansen). Looking further into the future, many young people fear the instability of Social Security and company pensions. Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of FinAid.org and Fastweb.com, states, “In the coming years, a lot of people will still be paying off their student loans when it’s time for their kids to go to college.” Recently, the government has passed new laws to alleviate this issue, though no real changes to tuition prices have been made.
These laws stipulate that banks will no longer back government student loans, and all colleges and universities must switch to direct lending, controlled by the government’s Financial Aid Office (Associated Press). In turn, the law creates savings of $68 billion over the next eleven years, of which more than $40 billion will go toward Pell Grants for students from low and moderate income families (Associated Press). Moreover, the government will forgive the debt balance after 20 years for students who make their payments on time (Associated Press). Although these changes will increase the ability of poorer students to attend college, it does not lessen tuition or increase available seats in the university classroom. Universities will still accept more high-income students who are able to pay the entirety of their tuition at the cost of lower-income students, despite academic abilities. Though advocates of these laws believe true change will come, the cost of college remains extraordinarily high. Thus begins the unfortunate college tuition cycle all over again, regardless of government intervention.
In sum, college loan debt has financially crippled millions of graduates. Universities turn to richer families willing to succumb to the exorbitant tuition fees at the cost of lower income households. Instead of focusing any excess money on improving the educational value of the school, administrators pour millions into athletics, building appearance, and their own salaries. In order to lower these prices, schools could cut athletic funding. Moreover, universities could lower their administrative salaries, if only for a few years. On one hand, the government has begun to step in to try to help these money-strapped students; however, it appears to be too little too late. If America wishes to see a true change in the post-secondary educational system, tuition must be lowered across the board.
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Associated Press. “Student Loan Change: What’s in it for you?” MSNBC. MSNBC.com, 30 March 2010. Web. 13 April 2011.
Bowen, Howard Rothmann. The Costs of Higher Education. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1980. Print.
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Dreifus, Claudia and Hacker, Andrew. “Colleges: Where the Money Goes.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 12 Sep. 2010. Web. 13 April 2011.
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Korn, Melissa and Pilon, Mary. “Student-Loan Default Rates Worsen.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 4 Feb. 2011. Web. 12 April 2011.
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