The Tuition Is Too Damn High

Students are struggling under a mountain of debt and the forecast for the future of education looks like more of the same


Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The first of our Schooled mini-series on the future of higher education and how Secretary DeVos’ plans can hurt or help our struggling colleges and universities. Additional reporting by Jossif Ezekilov and Kaz Weida.

If you’ve been to college in the past twenty-five years, chances are your out-of-pocket costs for the framed piece of paper at your parent’s house is more than you make in a year. We have all witnessed the damage The Great Recession of 2008 had on the country as a whole — resulting in an incredible reduction of individual net worth and a higher cost of just about everything you can buy with money. Especially college.

Despite unemployment being at a decade low and the economy doing well, homeownership is at a fifty year low. To cap it off, college graduates of 2015 came out with the most debt of any year before, being in the red $30,000. Starting independent adult life with a pre-existing mortgage, without any of the perks, is a sure way to keep those 21st century homeownership numbers low.

If you’re graduating college this year, your degree cost you a hefty $133,000. If you graduated college in 1992, it cost you approximately $69,000. In less than twenty-five years, the cost of sending your child, or yourself, to college now costs twice as much.

From FiveThirtyEight

From FiveThirtyEight

According to College Board, the average cost of one year at a private American college for the 2016–2017 school year was $33,480. The average cost of one year at a private American college for the 1991–1992 school year was $17,340. That’s not including room and board.

Most school’s only response to remedying their rising deficits is to raise tuition, despite offering very little or nothing to make the extra cost worth it to their incoming students. It’s a nesting doll of failures which ultimately lead to pissed off students who, as alumni, have no inclination to lend their dollars to alumni funds or personal donations.

From College Board

From College Board

In light of the cutbacks many schools face, the quality of the education is the first thing to suffer. In a very day late and a dollar short approach to cutting overhead and adjusting priorities, the first assets to get cut are adjunct professors — who are already scraping the bottom of the barrel in the academic hierarchy — and their subsequent classes. But for schools that are in particularly dire straits, even tenured professors aren’t off the table when it comes to layoffs. Primarily due to an institutions inability or flat out refusal to adjust their staff, faculty, budgets, and expansion until it is too late, crucial technology updates, security measures, and housing repairs go by the wayside too.

The New York Times, at the tail end of 2008, all but prophesied what we know to be fact now: The cost will outweigh the capital families have saved to send their children to college, leading to massive amounts of unsustainable debt. The fear of what is to come down the pike is palpable from the administrators and researchers interviewed in the piece:

“If we go on this way for another 25 years, we won’t have an affordable system of higher education,” said Patrick M. Callan, president of the center, a nonpartisan organization that promotes access to higher education.” — The New York Times, December 2008

Let us not forget the cautionary tale of Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia. A small, all women’s liberal arts college, Sweet Briar, was facing imminent closure at the end of their 2015 school year, until the generosity of their alumnae stepped in and saved the school. Their enrollment was at an all time low, which combined with the rising costs of their overhead, was unsustainable enough to have to close immediately.

If it sounds vaguely like a Disney story, where all the princesses band together to save the castle, it’s because in it’s very basic essence, it is. That said, Sweet Briar is a case study in what’s happening in ever ebbing variations across the country — my own alma mater included.

These issues are not exclusive to students of private institutions. Public universities, due to being at the mercy of their respective states, are some of the hardest hit in this situation. The Center of Budget and Policy Priorities issued a report in August 2016 on exactly this:

“Though some states have begun to restore some of the deep cuts in financial support for public two- and four-year colleges since the recession hit, their support remains far below previous levels. In total, after adjusting for inflation, funding for public two- and four-year colleges is nearly $10 billion below what it was just prior to the recession. As states have slashed higher education funding, the price of attending public colleges has risen significantly faster than the growth in median income. For the average student, increases in federal student aid and the availability of tax credits have not kept up, jeopardizing the ability of many to afford the college education that is key to their long-term financial success.” — Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, August 2016

Of course, we’re still just talking about the cost of a bachelor’s degree. As master’s degrees gain more and more popularity with hiring managers, we will eventually start to see the trend shift toward favoring workers with master’s degrees, elevating the American dream to yet another level that is too damn high for many to reach. We may be eight years removed from the end of The Great Recession, but barring another national financial crisis, our full recovery is still some years off.

These troubling trends undermine so much about the fabled American dream we’ve been spoonfed in this country since early childhood. The idea that a bachelor’s degree alone will bring us fulfilling jobs, and steady income to purchase a home to raise a family in, is arbitrary at best. Where so much of The Great Recession was pegged on the lack of personal responsibility and financial intelligence, the same can be said of the crisis our higher ed institutions currently face. How Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, plans to remedy these issues has the majority of Americans hanging in the balance.

Schooled // College / Education / Education Reform / Politics