It’s a conversation that occurs at the kitchen tables of high school seniors and graduate students alike: ”How am I going to pay for college?”
The price of college and textbooks has been increasing faster than the rate of inflation for the past 30 years. Concurrently, a college degree has replaced the high school diploma as the basic requirement for a career. Given these two factors, paying for college has put families under increasing pressure. Without a degree from a decent college or university, parents fear their children will not succeed in the same way as their own generation. These concerns and anxieties made it to the campaign trail through the issues of student loans reform and free college tuition.
In the 1960s and 1970s, college tuition was not much of an issue. Many people were able to graduate high school, get a good paying job and advance on merit. My aunt did not have a college degree and was able to become the deputy head of human resources at a concrete plant, and lived a comfortable life. College education was for those who wanted to advance sooner to higher positions than their high school comrades.
The price of college was readily within reach. University of California Berkeley used to be free. In Indiana, college used to be cheap enough that my high school biology teacher was able to pay his tuition with his summer job. Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage in the 1970s was around $9 per hour.
As time went on, a college degree became the requirement for entry-level positions. State governments began to cut funding for public universities. To help students, the government began the student loan program. While the student loans program tried to help students, the level of student loan debt began to pile up.
As debts pile up, recent graduates are forced to give up more and more of their paychecks to student loan repayment instead of more economically productive things like buying a house or car. Couple this with underemployment and possibly unemployment; student loan debt has become a major burden for America’s young people.
The growing tuition crisis in America will not be fixed by any of the simple solutions discussed in soundbites and internet memes. Talking about student loan reform and free tuition ignore crucial elements of the problem. Answering the question of why college is going up in price will lead to a better solution.
A big factor driving up the cost of college is the growth of university bureaucracies. There seems to be a director of just about everything in a university, and these positions demand salaries. Administration should be effective but not wasteful. The number of bureaucrats and administrators should never be greater than the number of professors. Corruption within the administrations should also be tackled.
The rise in college tuition coincides with declining investment from the government. All colleges receive funding from the government, whether it is direct funding or indirect in the form of grants. Investing money in higher education allows universities to better equip their students with skills needed for the workforce or academia. Universities give infrastructure for research and development and ready access to a trained workforce. The state and federal government should invest more money in higher education in order to bring tuition costs within reach. The funding to universities should be tagged for education and career development.
In addition to tackling the cost of higher education, the jobs crisis for recent graduates makes the problem worse. If graduates were able to get good paying jobs related to their fields, they could pay back their student loans. The unemployment rate for recent college graduates in 2015 was higher than the national unemployment rate. The rate of underemployment is close to 15 percent. Being a gas station clerk with a master’s degree is an example of being underemployed. Underemployed positions often are part time and pay close to minimum wage. Student loan debts in addition to high underemployment provides a recipe for financial disaster.
Tackling the problem of paying for higher education will be difficult, but it can be done. The free tuition platform has gotten the issue of higher education into the political conversation. Free college tuition would be nice on the student side, but I think it does not adequately tackle the question of why college is going up in price. The conversation should be taking on the growth of college tuition and the issue of underemployment and unemployment for recent graduates.
Contrary to what the older generation or meme page on Facebook, college graduates actually want to work and live the American Dream like their parents. My senior fraternity brothers and I are excited to graduate, join the workforce and become productive members of society. Lower tuition and good paying jobs to pay back those student loans would make the American Dream more accessible.