Will the Costs of College Cause an Economic Disaster?
Higher education is potentially one of the best tools for social mobility in America. However, as it is set up now, it may only help the rich get richer. Why? Well, college is a great way for lower-income people to improve their economic situation—but they need to be able to afford it first.
Is college worth it for students who already start out at a disadvantage? Let’s look at what students, especially from low-income areas, are up against when they choose post-secondary education today.
Is the future of higher education doomed?
In April 2014, education, corporate and philanthropic leaders from around the world who met in Essex, NY at a two-day Summit believed that many colleges will be unrecognizable in another decade and that unless millions more low-income students attain college degrees we face a global economic crisis.
Participating in the Summit were 60 individuals from China, Ireland, Great Britain, Canada, Germany, France and the United States representing a dozen colleges and universities, eight foundations, six corporations and 15 secondary schools, including executives from Google, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, GE Foundation, Ernst & Young, University of Michigan, Harvard, Trinity College Dublin, Beijing Normal University, among others.
“Our outstanding participants included five lead speakers who framed the key issues surrounding college 2025. These speakers are futurists, experts in teaching and learning, recognized globally. We even had a 10-time Oscar winner,” said Rick Dalton, president and CEO of College For Every Student, the organization that sponsored the Summit with Trinity College Dublin.
Emerging Technology Trends
Dr. Nicholas Haan, a futurist from Singularity University in California, said, “We must leverage the exponential technology trends and the disruption that’s upon us to solve today’s inequalities and inefficiencies in education.”
Haan provided examples of the technology trends that will affect education in the near future, including Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics as well as Digital Manufacturing. He urged attendees to view challenges as problems that can be solved. “We need to throw out our old thinking and prepare ourselves for a world that is collaborative, ongoing and personalized.”
Lord David Puttnam of Queensgate, film producer, educationalist and Labour peer (UK), told summit participants, “Today’s students are embarking on a journey with no map. Today’s teachers are working in a scenario that has never been seen before – they are doing a job no one has ever been asked to do. They are becoming digital learners, interested in creating, sharing and delivering content with their students.”
Revolutionizing the Engine of Education
Paul Reville, former Massachusetts Secretary of Education and current professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, said the “engine of education” should be re-configured, “We need to tackle the problem of differentiation, extend the entitlement of education and create a braided system that addresses – and includes – the challenges of social, physical and mental health services. A solution that focuses on instruction alone, simply will not work.”
Cliona Hannon, Director of Trinity Access Programmes (TAP) at Trinity College Dublin, said, “We are talking about developing innovative opportunities for low-income students. We need the talent of all young people engaged in civic society.”
The Recruiting Revolution
Dr. William Fitzsimmons, Harvard College’s Dean of Admissions, discussing the range of strategies and programs Harvard is undertaking to recruit low-income students and to support them once they’re enrolled, emphasizing “this is a human rights issue – it’s an outrage to waste the talent of these young people.”
From Harvard’s continued work on strengthening their financial aid structure, to actively recruiting low-income students in cities across the country, to creating and implementing student support programs, Fitzsimmons concluded “we can’t just bring students in and hope it works – it’s imperative we provide substantial support throughout.”
Professor Les Ebdon, Director of the Office of Fair Access in the UK, shared insights on his country’s approach to making fair access and participation a reality through its development of comprehensive access agreements.
Solutions to the Challenges
Leaders of the Summit will produce a white paper that delivers strategies to increase access and support for low-income students for College 2025.
“We know the devastating price of inequality, and we gathered to do something about it. There’s a better world out there for our children. A college degree is still the best path to a world of opportunity,” said Dalton of CFES.
Is college only for the elite?
Ironically, those who need to enter this “world of opportunity” most are least able to.
According to a report via the Times Higher Education, affluent children have a nearly 60 percent chance of “entering a highly selective university, compared with 27 percent for the less privileged group. The prospects of not entering any university were 8 percent and 27 percent, respectively.”
While this news isn’t necessarily new or surprising, it does continue to reaffirm a theory that higher education in the United States is not the model of equality that it really should be.
Student loan debt is a hot button issue now because it recently passed credit card and auto loan debt as the second-largest type of debt that Americans hold. Couple that news regarding debt to this report that suggests how tough it may be for less affluent children to enter America’s top colleges and it reveals flaws in our higher education systems.
The report also shows that no matter how higher education is structured in America and other countries, “affluent families will do whatever it takes to seek out qualitative advantages within the system that they face.”
In essence, rich kids still have a leg up. While this is not surprising, it is disheartening in a country that claims to be a land of equal opportunities.
As I have written about on my site, reorganizing how higher education impacts children who come from lesser backgrounds is paramount. Tuition growth will have to be restricted, the government will have to completely restructure Pell Grants and student loans, and America’s economy will have to continue to improve for these kids to have a chance to succeed.
Why the poor might not have access to a college education
It’s well-known how expensive post-secondary education is today. What is not as well-known is why.
Part of this is a lack of state investment in colleges and universities in recent years.
Only two states in the country are spending as much per student on higher ed funding as they did pre-recession, according to a report released by Young Invincibles. The nonprofit millennial advocacy group is pushing for debt-free higher ed funding and increased state involvement in helping young people obtain college degrees.
Between 2008-2014, North Dakota and Alaska were the only states to increase higher education spending, by 38 percent and 6 percent respectively. During this period every other state cut higher education funding, on average by 21 percent per student.
Why hasn’t higher education funding bounced back?
As the economy recovers, funding at the state level for colleges and universities has not bounced back. The reasons for these cutbacks vary based on state revenues, budget restrictions, and other factors. It seems that the decrease in investment is easier for policymakers to pass, as constituents are more likely to accept these types of cuts, versus more contentious moves like tax increases.
Though individuals may not overwhelmingly object to higher education budget cuts, they should. A direct impact can be seen in a family’s budget when these types of cuts are made. As states were decreasing their higher education funding, tuition and fees rose by 28 percent on average for two-year and four-year public universities, between 2008-2014. Tom Allison, Young Invincibles’ deputy director and author of the report tells MarketWatch, “The skyrocketing student debt we see is a symptom of a disease, and the disease we see is state disinvestment from higher education.”
The report clearly is not the first to draw a connection between states’ decreased investment in higher education and increasing tuition and growing student debt. However, Allison tells MarketWatch that arming residents with this type of information and how it directly affects their pocketbooks may encourage students, parents, and lawmakers to fight for better funding for higher education institutions.
Do students benefit from a “stable” higher education industry?
You might think that higher education is in trouble with everything that is going on within the industry. But surprisingly, the higher education industry is doing just fine.
According to Washingtonpost.com, Moody’s has officially upgraded the higher education industry to stable from negative.
“[T]he firm predicted that higher education will stabilize, for the first time post-recession, allowing more predictability in operating budgets. They upgraded the whole sector to “stable.””
The article lightly details why the rating was elevated and if it is sustainable.
Due to rising revenue because of growth in tuition and federal research funding, the industry has experienced stability, which is something higher education hasn’t been accustomed to since the start of Obama’s second term.
But that news isn’t necessarily grand for students. Tuition growth may be great for the industry as a whole because it decreases volatility, but rising college costs due to tuition increases have priced many students out of higher education.
Hopefully, the stability of the industry will lead to a reduction in how often colleges and universities are forced to raise tuition due to budget cuts and low funding from state legislatures.
But overall, this is good news. When higher education had a negative outlook, it was bad for all involved. An uptick in that outlook will surely help this arena in remaining stable and improving its standing in the coming years.
Answering the hard question: is college worth it anymore?
With all these factors that may benefit higher education, the government, the student loan industry, and everyone who is not a college student, it’s worth asking whether college is even worth going to anymore.
Many Americans definitely do not think so, and there is a lot of merit to that line of thought.
But the Obama Administration’s College Scorecard has a clearer, if counter-intuitive, insight.
The Obama Administration’s College Scorecard is kind of the gift that continues to give. It gives prospective students, and their parents, the ability to compare schools without having to fully visit too many colleges.
Another fantastic win from the scorecard is that we are provided with an idea of how well students do financially after they’ve graduated.
According to an article via Hamptonroads.com, the scorecard “tracks salaries ten years after the freshman year.” The good news? Student salaries used for the purpose of the article range from $34,000 to $56,000. The bad news? Salaries all depend on a student’s major.
But that’s not bad news as someone with a degree in finance is likely to make more than a student who chooses a career path in journalism.
The economy also plays a major role in determining one’s salary. Some companies constrict employment, increase employee production, and fail to produce salary increases because of how tight its bottom line becomes due to the state of the economy.
Even with those deciding factors, college graduates still make more than that of those with just high school diplomas. Most companies still prefer a college graduate compared to someone who just has a G.E.D. or high school diploma. A college degree won’t guarantee that you are wealthy, but it should help you live a more comfortable life than if you didn’t have it at all. That statistic isn’t likely to change anytime soon, and students should still strive for a college education to maximize their lifetime earning potential.
Now if we could just get the pursuit of those college degrees to be a little more affordable in the first place, we’d have something.
There are many ways to get there. Here are just a few suggestions.
Free college: a basic right or a privilege we can’t afford?
Earning a college education is something that is a double-edged sword for the nation’s youngest adults and some of their parents too. Society dictates that some form of secondary education is an absolute must for lifetime success but the cost associated with earning those credentials is debilitating. The Washington Post reports that the average college student will graduate with $25,000 in debt. With over $1 trillion in outstanding loans, student debt outweighs credit card debt and is exempt from bankruptcy protection.
Some may say this is just the cost of doing business and that a few years (or decades) of repaying student loans is worth the cost in the long run. If a person truly values his future, repaying loans and interest rates are just part of proving his dedication. To each his own, and other related monikers.
But what if that mentality were flipped? What if there was no cost to obtain a college education and it was viewed as a basic right, much like the K-12 public school system? With proponents such as 2016 Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, the conversation about free college is finally opening up in a major way.
It seems that the knee-jerk response is to claim that the nation can’t afford it. The trillion-dollar college education industry, coupled with the lending companies that “help” finance these endeavors, would feasibly go under if students did not have to find, earn or borrow the tens of thousands necessary to prove they care about their career.
Perhaps that’s true. But how would the economy as a whole look if college student debt disappeared? Instead of taking the first, low-paying job that came along to desperately find the cash to start repaying loans, maybe students would hold out for the perfect job where their talents and education could be best utilized. Instead of the nearly 22 million young adults living at home with their parents, maybe those kids would invest in their housing and start contributing to that industry faster. Parents who save every penny to pay for college would feasibly have more cash to put back into other aspects of the economy, strengthening whatever industries they touched.
When the facts are examined, it seems that the only ones truly benefitting from the current higher education model are the institutions themselves and the companies that support lending. In the second quarter of this year, private lender Sallie Mae reported $543 million in net income. In 2013 alone, Sallie Mae has spent over $1.2 million lobbying against legislation meant to relieve some of the college debt strain. Much like the skyrocketing healthcare industry costs over the past two decades, colleges and lenders have been left to their own devices with improper regulations.
The result is the “soaring college costs” we hear so much about today. According to the College Board in 1992 one year of college at a public four-year institution cost around $7,500 in today’s dollars. Now that cost is $10,000 higher. Private nonprofits cost around $17,000 in 1992; today the cost is nearly $24,000. The cost of college is a runaway train at this point. College costs have risen faster than the inflation rate for decades.
While an economy hindrance, the high price tag of a college education has very little resistance when observing the nation’s population as a whole. Colleges and lending companies have, for the most part, gotten “a pass” because the pursuit of knowledge is deemed a worthy one where the price should never be considered an issue. Under the guise of a better-educated workforce, colleges and lenders have been able to get away with more than any other industry providing a basic, American service. What would the reaction be if utility costs rose that quickly, or the price of a gallon of milk?
For a college education to have the intended impact on the individual and society as a whole, it needs to be affordable – or completely free. It is a basic American right.
What if college can’t be free?
Perhaps a free college education is out of reach for America right now. However, an affordable one certainly shouldn’t be. At least, this is the hope of Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Last year, she announced a plan that will tackle issues related to higher education.
“New College Compact” aims to tame the cost associated with attaining a college degree. She’s also looking to put a leash on student loan debt.
According to Brookings.edu, Clinton’s plan would make community colleges free.
“It vows to make enrollment at community colleges free and affordable without loans at four-year public institutions if students contribute the equivalent of wages from a 10-hour per-week job and families make the contribution prescribed by the aid eligibility formulas.”
Clinton is facing stiff competition from Bernie Sanders and will likely have to hold off a strong charge from Martin O’Malley. So releasing a progressive higher education plan surely works in her favor until it doesn’t.
While the plan sounds good on the surface, Clinton will have to tighten a few corners. HBCUs have serious concern over how free community college will impact their enrollment and financial aid.
She wants to reduce interest rates on student loans, but a Brookings study found that many students who reside in higher tax brackets hold a lot of the debt associated with student loans.
“Our prior analysis indicates that higher-income households hold a disproportionate share of student loan debt. The richest 25 percent of families hold 40 percent of the student loans, and would, therefore, receive roughly 40 percent of the benefits of a proposal that allowed all loan debt to be refinanced at lower rates.”
Still–even with that nugget of information, many low-income students who face high repayments or garnishment due to default would likely benefit from the proposal.
What would happen if schools stopped charging tuition?
Political activist Ralph Nader decided to run for president on the premise of being a consumer advocate and one who fights against keeping America from turning into an exclusive meritocracy.
It’s also why he wants his former school to do away with tuition
Nader graduated from the Harvard Law School in 1958 with a bachelor of law and thinks that the school isn’t doing enough to keep costs for student low.
Along with other activists, Nader is calling for Harvard University to use its endowment to eradicate tuition fees.
Boasting the largest endowment in the nation, Harvard has a fund of $36 billion and raised over $1 billion in 2015.
Simply put, Harvard isn’t hurting for dollars
Tapping into that income will not harm Harvard’s ability to fund other projects, like new buildings and paying for other fees, but it may set a precedent that other schools will be forced to follow.
Because Harvard’s endowment is so big–again, largest in the nation–it has the privilege that other schools may not harness.
Some in Congress are at least exploring the idea of potentially forcing some schools to use money from endowments towards tuition fees. The issue this presents is that many who decide to give to a school’s endowment usually do so for a certain cause or matter.
Former Harvard Business School student John Paulson gave the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Science a gift of $400 million in 2015. That money may be designated strictly for use at that school.
It’s also worth noting that these endowments are tax exempt and the policy may allow for schools like Harvard to run up the score.
Removing that exemption may not hurt Harvard, but it would damage other schools. For example, Grambling State University’s (GSU) endowment is only $4.5 million, and the school would be severely hurt if that money was taxed. GSU also has an alumni base that isn’t as financially strong as Harvard.
For the sake of rich and powerful schools, doing away with tuition fees would certainly help its students. But that rule should likely only apply to schools that can afford it, which means that no law or policy may be created to force schools to do so.
Are Income Share Agreements another option for college affordability?
What are Income Share Agreements (ISA)?
These will help students who take out loans to attain a degree that may be deemed worthless in the workplace. Often, they are saddled with massive amounts of debt that they are unable to pay back.
This causes many to default on their loans and fall down an income hole that detaches them from the ability to obtain credit to purchase a home, vehicle, etc…
Because it’s tough to section these students off–those who may be in danger of gaining a degree that’s economically barren–some may be eligible to take out an ISA loan.
These loans allow the student to pay back the cost of their degree regarding its value. So if one student has a degree that has little to no worth, he or she will have a small amount, if any, to repay.
Inversely, if a student’s degree turns out to be of much value, then that student will pay back more.
Ostensibly this seems like a good deal for students. It’s affordable, colleges and universities seem open to it, and Congress is exploring ways to create a regulatory environment for ISAs.
Hopefully, once properly researched and vetted, the application of these loans are a win for students as the cost of tuition and school fees continue to rise.
How to prevent an economic crisis by making college affordable again
Let’s be clear—there are many ways to peel a banana. Since there are many reasons higher education costs have skyrocketed over the past few decades, there are many solutions we can engage to manage these costs and lessen the burden on students. We can make college totally free, or we can look for various ways to make college less expensive.
One thing seems to clear, though: students who are lower-income need to be able to find their way up…and it is becoming more and more difficult to do so. These days, a college degree is more necessary than ever. We need to make college cheaper and more accessible to lower-income students if we want a vibrant future for our economy.