Making college affordable

Bonnie Willis

The end of another school year is at hand and many of our proud and hard-working high school seniors are displaying the colleges they plan to attend in the fall. As they rejoice in their acceptance, many parents are worrying and asking themselves, “How are we going to pay for this?”

Unlike the recent controversies surrounding certain famous actors who could pay thousands, and in some cases, hundreds of thousands, most parents are not in the position to pay for the full cost of even one year at a state school, much less the “elite” schools these parents were essentially bribing their way into.

To make college affordable, parents have depleted savings accounts, mortgaged their homes, and allowed their children to take out massive loans to pay for college. The financial pressures to American families have led to continuous discussions as to what legislative measures should be taken to make college affordable.

During my days in college, restrictions on student loan lending were loosened to make federal and subsidized loans more accessible. And, in 2010, buried in the Affordable Healthcare Act, the U.S. Congress also approved the federal government taking over student loan lending. With the federal government assuming issuing most college grants, scholarships, and now student loans, the question becomes has the cost of college become more affordable? No.

With easier access to federal funds, colleges have used these monies to expand programs, hire more faculty and staff at higher wages, and invest in beautiful buildings and facilities to entice prospective students. Consequently, tuitions have skyrocketed.

In fact, according to a Federal Reserve study, the average college tuition cost has increased by nearly 500 percent in less than 20 years — which is four times the rate of general inflation over the same period. Correspondingly, students have simply (and easily) increased their student loan amounts to pay for college. So now, 44 million students have assumed over $1.5 trillion dollars in student loan debt with a concomitant increase in the number of defaults.

Still, it is astonishing to me that prominent political figures are advocating that we should simply forgive student loan debts and simply make college free-like K-12 education.

I honestly do not understand how one could reason through this position and come away with a conclusion other than it would be unsustainable.

In K-12 education, local communities and states pay taxes that support their schools. These schools are bound to budgets that are controlled by local school boards. Citizens recognize their tax dollars are supporting these schools because they serve the children that live within their community.

Conversely, colleges and universities serve adults (not children) who attend their schools from all over the world. Making these schools “free” would mean U.S. taxpayers would be subsidizing these institutions at a price tag that would add billions of dollars on top of the tens of billions the federal government spends in scholarships and grants and sink us deeper into the annual deficit of one trillion dollars per year.

Anything “financed” by the government is ultimately the financial burden of taxpayers. Thinking that we can simply tax “the rich” is also untenable, because even if we taxed “the rich” at 90 percent of their income, it would not be enough to pay for “free college for all.”

But allowing the federal government to assume full financial responsibility of our colleges would effectively give them the control to regulate what is taught and how it is taught. Let’s be honest, virtually every federal, government institution we can think of is not known for operational efficiency, creativity, and innovation.

The problem with current ideas regarding making college affordable using legislative means is that they tend to focus only on the demand side of this economic equation. Making monies for college more accessible has led to the highest levels of inflation rates of any product I can think of.

I have yet to hear ideas on how to address the supply side of the equation and how to drive down the actual price tag — other than simply making college “free” (i.e., paid for by taxpayers).

If colleges were limited in terms of the federal funding they could receive, and relied more on private sourced funding, maybe it would cause them to be more fiscally conservative.

Additionally, they could educate prospective students on the actual costs of their loan repayments and make them more aware of the billions of dollars in private scholarships that are available.

Such actions could motivate both colleges/universities in their board rooms and families at their kitchen tables to seriously consider the fundamental question of how to make college more affordable and finally address both the supply and demand side of this issue.

Our families, our institutions of higher learning, and our nation as a whole would be the better for it.

[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 with her husband and their five children.]