We Need to Change the Math of Higher Education

We Need to Change the Math of Higher Education

Alexis ChapmanFriday,1 April 2016

For many Americans who had the audacity to want to go to college even if they weren’t extremely wealthy, student loans have become a nightmare from which it can seem, there is no escape. This system is not new, but in recent decades the numbers have increasingly been changing in ways that show that the whole system is probably long overdue for an overhaul. Between 1971 and 2012 tuition costs increased by over 250%, while median income went up by only 7% for men and 20% for women. College is much more expensive in relative terms so more people need loans to be able to pay for it, but the jobs we’re getting aren’t paying as much, so it’s harder to pay off those loans.

With mounting public pressure to address the problem, politicians have lately been throwing out all kinds of different plans. Senator Bernie Sanders has put forth a bold proposal to “make college tuition free and debt free.” Taxpayer-funded higher education has some obvious merits and a lot of countries successfully operate this kind of system. In the U.S. currently about 3% of our federal spending goes to education, so if we want to start making education more of a priority there is definitely room to do more. On the other hand, saying that tuition would be “free” is simply not accurate; you wouldn’t say that we have a “free military” or “free roads.” And it’s going to be a hard sell to get a lot of Americans to foot the bill for college tuition when college students have been in the news lately for some not great reasons.

Hillary Clinton also has a plan, which, like a lot of her plans lately, is similar to Senator Sanders’ but more complicated and more of a compromise. She seeks to create a New College Compact where students would not have to borrow to attend a state college in their home state, but would still be expected to contribute earnings from working part time. Families would also be expected to contribute based on their income and states would have to pitch in as well. Overall her plan seems like it would eliminate student debt, but would also spread the burden around a bit, and could be more acceptable to people who don’t want fully socialized higher education.

What these have in common is that they’re both trying to get rid of the student loan system. Others seem to be trying to fix it. President Obama and Secretary of Education John King, who was appointed on March 14 and who admitted he’s still paying off loans for his graduate degree, have been pushing efforts to make college more affordable. Some of the plans they’re promoting include the Pay As You Earn program, which caps the amount of your income that goes towards repayment at 10%, and plans to simplify the Free Application For Student Aid (FAFSA). Congress, for its part, has introduced a bunch of bills, which could make changes to the student loan system if any of them ever passed. One of them, H.R. 3446, the Simplifying Financial Aid for Students Act of 2015, was assigned to a subcommittee on March 23 and may actually be moving.

Enabling people to get an education that is affordable is extremely important for us as a nation and it’s good that people are trying to tackle this from a variety of angles. But there is a notable absence in all the above strategies: colleges and universities themselves. One of the main reasons that things have gotten the way they are is that tuitions, especially tuitions at for-profit private schools, have gone way up. This wouldn’t be a problem if there was value for money and return on investment. If getting a degree from one of these schools meant that you were guaranteed, or at least very likely, to get a job that enabled easily paying back student loans, then the system would be ok. But for many people that is no longer the case. So far there hasn’t seemed to be any accountability for this discrepancy on behalf of the schools. Recently former students have sued their schools, in particular law schools, when they were unable to find jobs after graduating. These suits have not gotten far in the courts, which makes sense legally since there is not an official contract saying that if you go to this or that college or university you will get this or that job. But there is generally a social contract to that effect, and a lot of schools seem to be making a lot of money but not entirely holding up their end of the bargain.

Whether we fix the system of student loans, or shift the burden of paying for schools partially or completely to tax payers, we need to ensure that we’re getting our money’s worth. Education just for education’s sake is great, but it doesn’t pay the bills, and when one of your biggest bills is education something is seriously wrong.

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Image Credit: Joe Brusky on Flickr

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