Why is Higher Education so Expensive?

Tuition is Too Damn High

“We have a responsibility to ensure that every individual has the opportunity to receive a high-quality education, from prekindergarten to elementary and secondary, to special education, to technical and higher education and beyond.” ~Jim Jeffords

Higher Education has become quite the flash point in recent years. Students of all stripes (myself included) have been subject to constant increases in the cost of their college education. Of course, they could always decide to skip college and just enter the workforce, thus saving tens of thousands of dollars. Oh wait, never mind, they really can’t. As the cost of higher education has continued to rise, it has only become more of a necessity. Don’t believe me?  Ask all those insurance agents if a bachelor’s degree was really necessary to do the work they do.  Or the companies who need employees trained in highly specialized fields like computer science if they’ll hire someone straight out of high school. Though the more important question is how did we get here?

Problem 1: State Higher Education funding has not matched the need nor the demand of this generation. While funding for education has generally risen for higher ed over the past decade, it has not come close to meeting demand. In fact, most public state institutions have actually seen funding decrease dramatically in relation to the amount the student pays in tuition. In Minnesota, this has accounted for a state college and university system that once was two-thirds state funding, one-third tuition to shift to the opposite ratio. As we continue to see more students pursuing a higher-education, the lack of legislative will to match that increase with a proportionate amount of funding is placing the financial burden solely on the back of the students.

Problem 2: Educating a student simply costs more. One thing I never understood about Star Wars, was how they afforded to build those technological marvels like the Death Star and lightsaber. It couldn’t have been cheap.  Similarly, as the world makes rapid technological advances, the education required to utilize that technology in the work force increases as well. In order to stay on the cutting edge, college and universities must invest thousands of dollars into the latest teaching tools. Whether this is a state-of-the-art science lab or an effective Learning Management System the cost of education increases with every new innovation. Unfortunately, that cost gets passed on directly to the student in the form of increased fees and tuition.

Problem 3: Companies that use to train their employees, now rely on the higher education institutions to do it for them. There was a time when you could get an entry-level job doing something as simple as working in a mail room. From there you could work your way up with the help of in-house training. In many ways, those days are behind us. Instead, employers expect you to attend college for a very specific field, get the requisite experience through what is many times an unpaid internship, and then fill a very specific need. This  has forced anyone who would like a well-paying, stable job to first invest a great deal of resources in a college education. This of course leads to further financial stress on the colleges and universities around the country. Well at least until we can upload information directly into our brains ala The Matrix.

Getting a higher education degree is unlikely going to get cheaper in the near future thanks to the combination of the increasing cost to educate students, a lack of state funding, and the simple reality corporations expect more out of higher education. However, there are things we as a society can do to reverse the trend before the costs begin to affect our ability to maintain a competitive workforce. First, we can begin  to prioritize higher-education funding as a priority when we head to the ballot box by supporting politicians who are serious about addressing the issue. Secondly, we can encourage the use of cheaper technological solutions to old problems (e.g. open source textbooks) to reduce the cost of educating our college students. Lastly, while its unlikely businesses will return to an era where they trained their employees from the bottom to the top, we can encourage partnerships between the private sector and the colleges and universities in order to find creative solutions to drive down the cost of higher education. Or we can always just assign everyone a career chip and cut out the middle man.


The Youth Movement: Continuing to Fight

“We live in an age when to be young and to be indifferent can be no longer synonymous. We must prepare for the coming hour. The claims of the Future are represented by suffering millions; and the Youth of a Nation are the trustees of Posterity.” ~Benjamin Disraeli

A great deal has been made of the fact that the youth vote in the 2012 election will pale in comparison to the historic numbers we saw in 2008. Sadly, there is a good chance those prognosticators might be right. The promise of real change offered by then presidential candidate Barack Obama was a motivating force behind millions of young voters not only making their voice heard through the power of their votes, but through engaging in a political process often dominated by older generations. However, as with most things, the reality things don’t always work out as planned coupled with a depressed economy that has had an especially dramatic effect on the young adults just entering the workforce or currently in college have caused many young people to become disenfranchised with the process. Despite this disappointment, it is more important than ever our generation engages to combat the age centric policies that are sure to effect this country for years to come.

Rising college costs have burdened an entire generation. According to the Project on Student Debt, the average college debt a student faces is more than $25,000. So many of individuals begin their adult lives behind financially with no physical assets to show for it. It is hard to think of purchasing a house when there is already a pile of loans hanging over your head. Instead of taking immediate steps to mitigate this debt, it is being used as a political football. Take the proposed increase of the Stafford Federal Loan interest rate from 3.4% to 6.8%. Instead of immediately passing legislation to extend the lower rate, many elected officials are using this issue as a political football to accomplish other policy goals. While the very fact this debate is taking place shows an interest in the fates of the young, unless they continue to make their voices heard it will soon fall to the wayside as issues being touted by an older, more engaged populace rise to the surface.

No one has felt the sting of unemployment as sharply as those just entering the workforce. So many individuals did what they were told. They went to college and worked hard. Then just as they were about to make a difference and start the jobs that would help them pay back the debt accrued while pursuing that education, the economy crashed. Droves of people were laid off, and those who would have otherwise retired were forced to remain employed as their savings dried up. As a result, so many college graduates have been forced to move back in with their parents and have been stuck working part-time jobs and are nowhere near starting the career they were promised. If this trend is ever going to be reversed it will require government investment that awards companies who hire this emerging workforce and invest in preparing them for the 21st century. Something less likely to happen if the young voters of this country do not stand up and have their voices heard.

If this country is going to face the challenges posed by the future it is vital the young make their priorities a central issue in every election. The only way that will happen is if they engage in the political process at every level: from the ballot box to the doorbell. They must fight against policies that favor preserving a status quo that pours billions of dollars into the a defense budget much larger than it needs to be. They must continue to fight for healthcare for all, not just the oldest Americans. Finally, they must not sit back and watch as higher education in this country becomes almost inaccessible while the rich continue to benefit from policies that sacrifice long-term investment for short-term gain. After all, to a paraphrase the man who inspired the beginning of this generations march towards excellence, we  must be the change that we seek.

Mortgaging the Future

“When you get in debt you become a slave” -Andrew Jackson

Recently student loan debt has reached $1 trillion. This is an unfathomable amount of money to saddle the future of this country with. This is more than all of the credit card debt in the country. Except with credit card debt, if things get too bad, you can just file for bankruptcy and it will go away. Meanwhile, with student loan debt even bankruptcy will not free you from shackles of student loans. This is simply inexcusable. We consistently emphasize the importance of higher education in rebuilding our economy, but then create policies that continue to drive its price  to a level well beyond anything that can be afforded without taking on massive debt. This is detrimental to our future and cannot be allowed to continue for a number of reasons.

The threat of debt makes higher education inaccessible for many. A recent Georgetown study, indicated that 70 percent of jobs will require some sort of post-secondary education. Sadly, many of those needed workers are being discouraged from pursuing a higher education in favor of remaining debt-free. Furthermore, every step up the educational ladder raises the risk and debt these students will face. When achieving one’s full potential to contribute to the economy is measured not by ability but how behind one is willing to get financially, it does not bode well for the development of society.

Debt saddled college graduates are limited in their ability to contribute to the economy. If I had managed to graduate college debt-free, there are a lot of things I would have done with the money currently going to paying back student loans. Most of which, would probably involve buying more goods. It’s no wonder we are facing a housing crisis in this country. When a large percentage of the next generation of workers are dumping money into paying off their education, there is a little left for purchases like a home or even a car in many cases. Ideally, we would live in an economy where the purchasing power of the populace was not so vital to prosperity.  However, until that day arrives, having a bunch of recent college graduates with money to directly inject into the economy is an excellent thing.

Debt discourages experimentation and innovation. Peter Thiel, cofounder of Paypal recently offered twenty individuals under the age of twenty,  $100,000 to forgo college in favor of starting a business. Most people are not faced with such a drastic choice as this. However, when one leaves college plagued by debt, taking the risks needed to stimulate the economy is not the most appealing proposition. Instead of pursuing further education, or taking out a business loan to start the next fortune 500 company, many college graduates are struggling just to find a job. Leading many to either settle for a low-skilled job that helps pay the bills, or in many cases, being forced to move in with parents or other family members while continuing a seemingly fruitless job search. This lack of success, damages the confidence of many, further reducing the willingness to take the chances needed to stimulate the economy.

The increase in student debt shows little signs of slowing. In fact, as governments attempt to balance the budget on the backs of students, both through decreased funding for public higher education, and reductions in state and federal grant programs, it only seems to be getting worse. However, this does not need to continue. Rededicating ourselves to preparing the future workforce of this country through investment in our higher education institutions and the grant programs that allow students to afford the educations they provide can reverse this trend. This will require courageous leadership and sacrifice from the elite minority that controls the money and power in this country. Or maybe we should just let the market solve the problem. That always seems to work…