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US Colleges: Gateway to the Middle Class or Pathway for the Elite?

From the end of WWII until more recently, college was seen as an accessible stepping stone for Americans who wanted to better their lives. The GI Bill made it possible for millions of veterans to attain higher education, and thus higher paying jobs. In turn, many of those graduates assumed that their children and grandchildren would go on to earn degrees and become well-paid professionals also.

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Something happened to higher education along the way, though. College costs have risen exponentially during the past 40 years (169% to be exact) and especially over the past decade. The current sticker price for a year at a private institution is $56,190, while that total comes in at $24,030 at public universities. Even at the average net price for post-secondary school, which totals $34,790 for private colleges and $20,310 for public, a four-year degree still costs an estimated $80,000 - $140,000.

What has occurred to cause US educational costs to outpace all others except healthcare? There are actually a number of contributing factors to this expensive trend, including:

  1. Hidden pricing: Students must be accepted at a school before they know what kind of aid package they will receive. Once they enroll, they are given a list of additional fees that they must pay (parking, books, etc.), which can add up to a sizeable amount. Some schools have even started adding fees for majoring in certain subjects.

  2. Expanded student services, amenities, and administration: Currently, students from wealthy families are much more likely to attend college than their middle- or lower-class peers and without regard to cost, making them a desirable demographic. In exchange, affluent families often expect universities to provide the kind of privileged lifestyle to which they are accustomed, and many universities strive to meet those expectations. Luxury and enhanced non-academic offerings require extra expenditure on accommodations, services, amenities, and the personnel to administer these programs.

  3. Spending on advertising: As some schools have gained a significant competitive advantage through both their academic and non-academic offerings, other schools must fight harder to maintain their student body. Additional monies, therefore, must be allocated to advertising, which adds to the overall cost. In other words, many colleges are often forced to spend more like a business than an academic institution.

  4. Decline in government aid: Many countries see higher education as the path to developing a more educated and productive workforce, one that will be more stable and also contribute more to the economy. In the US the opposite is happening, with college now viewed by many as elitist. State and federal aid programs have come under increasing pressure, therefore, to lower the amount of assistance being offered to students. Taxpayer support for public colleges has decreased significantly over the last number of years, leading to the privatization of college in the form of student loans. This change, in self-fulfilling fashion, then fuels the argument that college is only for those who can afford it.

  5. Student loans: Last but not least, the elephant in the room is student loans, especially from private lenders. These loans can perpetuate the vicious cycle of schools charging more because students can acquire these loans, and students having to take out larger loans because the cost of college has gone up. These loans are one of the only debts that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy (see the documentary, Loan Wolves); therefore, little incentive exists for lenders to be cautious about how these funds are handed out.

The problem of college cost is complex and often poorly understood. In order to reform the situation, a number of steps can be taken by students, parents, and schools:

  1. College Scorecard: The federal government provides tools to get a better understanding of what a particular degree will earn from different universities. Visit to access this information. Better ways to calculate costs before a student accepts an offer need to be developed as well.

  2. Encourage community college attendance: Especially for students on a budget, the financial advantage of attending community college for two years cannot be overstated. One drawback is that these schools often lacks living accommodations. States should look into building affordable housing for these students, not only for convenience, but also to encourage the interaction and relationships that students develop at a four-year school.

  3. Bolster apprenticeship and internship programs: Before the modern age, most people learned their trade through on-the-job training. Apprenticeship is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. And why not? Training someone for a guaranteed position in exchange for their time and effort seems to be a win-win proposition, and a way for someone who cannot afford a four-year degree to prove their worth and advance their career. This solution would be particularly applicable for those who have finished an associate's degree.

  4. Cap interest rates for student loans and allow for bankruptcy: Just as taxes are regulated for certain items like food, interest rates should be capped for expenses such as education. In addition, the unique protection from bankruptcy for education loans can be adjusted so they can be treated as any other debt that can be discharged, but still with guardrails to protect lenders from borrowers simply trying to escape a debt to which they agreed.

  5. Innovative college programs: Instead of appealing to students on the basis of luxury accommodations and unnecessary extras, schools could offer degrees at reasonable prices through innovative programs. Some schools already do so, as these examples show:

    1. Work-study programs: you can find these at a number of schools. One of the more impressive programs is at College of the Ozarks, where students receive a tuition-free education by participating in a 15-hour/week work program.

    2. No-frills accommodations: at Coventry University College in England, students opt for a lower-price education in a streamlined system without extras.

    3. Three-year degrees: BYU-Idaho now offers three-year degrees that focus on core and major classes, while leaving electives out. Instead of compacting 120 credit hours into three year, the actual number of hours is 90-94.

    4. Two- and four-year degrees: This option is based on personal experience. My younger son is attending Spartanburg Methodist College, which offers a two-year associate's degree with the option of staying two more years to complete a bachelor's degree. With this choice, a student who decides that two years is enough will have an actual degree when he or she leave.

    5. Income Sharing: The essence of this encouraging, mutuality-based pilot program, being tested at schools including Purdue and Stanford Law is that students have their tuition paid upfront in exchange for repaying with 10% of their income for twelve years after graduating.

Finally, I believe we need to revisit the main purpose of college. Based on the perceived need by so many universities to compete for students with over-the-top accommodations, I suspect that many US teens choose their school as much or more for the amenities and non-academic experience it offers than for the education they receive.

If we applied the ethic of enough to higher education, the essentials would be preserved, and costs would come down. I realize there are challenges to implementing this kind of reform, as many students are used to or anticipate the current scaled-up version of college. I see the above innovations, however, as hopeful signs that we are developing that ethic in meaningful ways; and that through those efforts, college will, someday, be seen once again as a accessible pathway for everyone.

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