Between 2008 and 2010, average tuition at four-year colleges increased 15 percent, according to statistics released by the United States Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency Center last Tuesday. Much of the increase is due to the increased cost of public universities; as state budgets dwindle, education is often one of the first things on the chopping block. 40 percent of states made major cuts to higher education budgets in the last year alone.
This news comes on the heels of the debate in Congress over federal loan interest rates. If Congress cannot come to a compromise by July 1,interest rates will double for more than 7 million federal loan recipients, meaning that students will be paying an average of $1,000 more each year. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the average American college student already carries $23,300 of student loan debt, with 56.9 percent of students taking out more than $10,000 in loans to help pay for college.
Between rising tuition and lack of low-interest loans, options are rapidly closing for students across the country. If a student wants a traditional college experience, most have to expect a bundle of debt awaiting them when they get out with few job prospects to help pay back those loans – Millennial unemployment for May 2012 was 12.1%, nearly four points higher than the national average.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says that students need to be smart consumers, but for many students higher education is not only dollars and cents. There is an intangible value in the “college experience” of being on a campus in a tight-knit community for four years. Students spend years fantasizing about college, helped along by countless TV shows and movies depicting the idyllic college experience. At 18 years old, college freshmen may find it hard to grasp the tangible value of $23,300 of debt and what that may mean after college.
In my own college search, I came across this issue. My choice came down to a private university in Washington, D.C. and the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, a public school in New York City of mostly commuter students. The private college had given me a $25,000 merit scholarship, but I still would have had to take out nearly $25,000 a year in loans. The scholarship package I received from Macaulay gave me full tuition, three years of free housing, a free laptop, and a $7,500 stipend over four years to defray the cost of study abroad and unpaid internships. Looking back it seems insane that I would even have considered taking out $25,000 each year in loans, but it was something that I seriously considered because I would have the traditional experience I had dreamt of. I ultimately chose to go to Macaulay, but I know that I chose a decidedly different college experience from most of my friends.
I was lucky enough to have an option that afforded me the luxury of coming out of college with no debt, but too many students are not given that option. The government, both at the state and federal level, needs to make funding for education – including Stafford loans and Pell grants – a priority to keep education accessible to the middle class. As Duncan points out, if “the costs [of higher education] keep on rising, especially at a time when family incomes are hurting, college will become increasingly unaffordable for the middle class.” To equalize opportunity, education needs to remain affordable and accessible to all Americans.