Who should pay for college?


With students starting and going back to college this month, probably the biggest concern for young people today is the cost of higher education or the massive amount of student debt they face.

Now reaching over $1.4 trillion dollars, student loans have surpassed credit card debt ($1.2 trillion dollars) as the biggest financial burden facing Americans. The average student has amassed an average of nearly $50,000 in student loan debt.

But with nearly 20 percent of students in default, the cry becomes, “Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Government (i.e., American taxpayers), what are you going to do about my student loans?”

And while I can relate to the fear of being crushed by such debt, I am incredulous about the presumptuousness of the question.

In order to graduate from Harvard, I applied for every scholarship I could find, worked part-time-and still amassed many thousands of dollars in student loan debt. However, at no time did it ever occur to me that someone else ought to pay for my debt.

I find myself wondering two things: what can possibly account for such a dramatic increase in student loan debt and how does one develop a mentality that someone else ought to pay for it?

According to U.S. News and World Report, the cost of college has increased dramatically. For private universities, it has gone up an incredible 196 percent. For out-of-state universities, it has gone up an amazing 226 percent. And for in-state universities, it has gone up an astonishing 296 percent over the last 20 years!

With my husband and I having worked at colleges, I can speak first-hand that while there has been an increase in professors’ salaries over the past 20 years, more and more universities are paying degreed professionals to teach classes, rather than hiring them on as faculty, in order to reduce operating costs.

So it is ironic that the cost of college has so dramatically increased. One would think these savings would be passed on to students. Instead, they are diverted to improving facilities and upgrading technologies, with the hope of attracting students since it seems that, for this generation of students, the look and feel of a university, both online and in-person, matter more than the academic history and credentialing.

And knowing that its primary source of income is the federal government, which provides grants and mandates the student loan amounts that private institutions makes available to students, schools feel the pressure not to control costs as much as they do to spend and attract their desired number, and quality of students.

In other words, the federal and state governments are largely subsidizing the operations of most universities, seemingly without considering the consequences of the resultant doubling and tripling the cost of college in the last two decades.

But how are students dealing with these ballooning costs? With average household incomes stagnant (if not falling), families rely heavily on scholarships, grants, and student loans to finance their college education.

And since many, as I did, view getting a college education as their ticket out of low-income status, the temptation is to accept the maximum amount of grants and student loans to which they are eligible, thereby accruing tremendous debt. But with my family having lived through this, I have three points of advice against such a course of action.

The first advice is: take as little student loan and credit card debt as possible. Even though it may feel like it, student loans are obviously not free money. Just because you may be eligible doesn’t mean you have to take the maximum amount.

Even if you have to work part-time, do so, rather than living off of accumulating debt. In the end, you will be grateful you did.

Second, start with your goal in mind. Where would you like to be at the end of your college experience? When deciding on a school, discuss this with your guidance counselor or academic advisor, and plan your college experience accordingly. Focus on things like the quality and quantity of the faculty, and career placement rates, rather than social vibe and reputation.

Unfortunately, over 40 percent of college graduates are now learning the hard way that simply graduating from a college will not open doors for them.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, recognize that anything worth having comes with a cost. This is also true of higher education.

Even though I went through many socioeconomic challenges growing up and worked hard to excel academically, I recall that during my early years of college I felt unworthy of the education I was receiving. It was a privilege for me to be in one of the most prestigious schools in the world, and I felt obligated to my mother and to those who awarded me scholarships to work hard and do my best in all my classes.

Once I graduated, it never once occurred to me that somehow I would not be responsible for paying back my student loans.

Ultimately, there are many things in life we are willing to pay for. It just perplexes me how it seems our society seems to be moving towards the mindset that the most fundamental and valuable things ought not be among them, when the very opposite should be true.

Maybe this is why we seem to take a backwards approach when it comes to evaluating the value of things. We presume the fundamental things are a given, and should be free, and the luxuries ought to be the only things we pay for.

As a result, because we haven’t sacrificed or paid for the substantive things in our lives, we take them for granted or ignore them and spend our time and money on superficial things like entertainment and our appearance.

And we are left with pretty buildings and non-critical thinkers. We really do get what we pay for.

[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company here in Fayette County and lives in Fayetteville along with her husband and their five children.]