The Real Cost of College

Every year across America, millions of students are accepted to college. They wait eagerly to receive envelopes in the mail boasting the seals of their first choice schools. Every one of them hopes the letter inside the envelope will tell them they were accepted. However, it is not how badly students want to go to certain schools that decides if they attend or not. What comes in the financial aid package is often the deciding factor for where students go. An admissions letter guarantees acceptance, but what truly determines a student’s future is the second envelope from the school. High school students, still ecstatic about an acceptance letter, tear open the financial aid packages, hoping for an offer that will make their dream school a reality. For some, there are hugs and excitement after opening an envelope offering scholarships and grants. For others, there is only the crushing reality that they can’t afford their dream school.

Pursuing higher education today is extremely expensive, but for many, the cost of college is a reality that they need to accept. In order to get ahead or be accepted for certain jobs, higher education is a must. As it is, the number of college- aged people in the United States has hardly changed in decades, yet the percentage of this age group actually enrolled in college is ever-increasing. Although there are far more students enrolled in, and therefore paying for college, the prices of these institutions increase by an average of 2.5% per year. Because of this, students are left with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and spend years trying to pay for their education after the fact. Although students can apply for scholarships and grants, on average students leave school with a debt of about $30,000-$40,000 on top of what they were able to cover up front. Of course, students that pursue further education, such as master’s degrees and PhDs, face debts that are significantly higher. For some, this can severely hinder their ability to become financially stable after college. In the present time college is becoming increasingly popular and normalized. However, the prices and loans that are almost guaranteed to come with an education do not suit the average person at all.

As of 2016, there were about 44.2 million Americans with student loan debt

After students graduate from college, it is not unusual for student loans to affect them immediately. Some students choose to move back in with family to ease strain on their finances. This is partly due to the fact that more than half of graduates say that their student loans significantly affect their ability to buy a home. In addition to that, other purchases that former students need to make are difficult as well. 35% say their student loans make buying daily necessities like groceries and toiletries more difficult. Most have to think twice about making larger purchases such as cars or other vehicles. This makes for an inordinate 62% of college graduates whose daily lives are adversely affected by their student loans. This is especially since more often than not, student loans can sum up to be a very significant expense. Oftentimes, students owe more than they make with a starting annual salary, even before interest on their loans begins to add up. Still unfortunately, the period spent paying back these loans is not always short. According to U.S. News and World Report “The standard repayment plan for federal student loans puts borrowers on a 10-year track to pay off their debt, but research has shown that the average bachelor’s degree holder takes 21 years to pay off his or her loans.” Additionally, even after student loans are paid off, the effects are still felt by grads for years due to the fact that loans also inhibit their ability to save for both emergencies and retirement. This is an undeniable change from the past, when student loans were far less common.

The large number of students paying exorbitant sums of money for their education begs the question: what exactly are these ever-increasing college costs actually buying for students? This question can be answered in a number of ways- depending on who you ask. Some, like Dr. Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors claim that this money goes towards entertainment and amenities. According to Fichtenbaum, universities across the nation feel the constant need to compete with each other. This drives them to spend on luxury dormitories and dining halls, as well as entertainment in the forms of rock climbing walls and intercollegiate sports. Others, like Dr. Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity argue that it is not amenities for students that drive up college costs, but rather professors’ salaries. Dr. Vedder tells the Wall Street Journal that tenured college faculty use most of their time to pursue research with what he calls “low teaching loads” as a supplement. Vedder claims that, because of this, administrators “hire cheap adjuncts who often do a fine job teaching at lower costs.” Of course, this is in addition to the higher paid, tenured professors. He also explains that there is no requirement for such hires as sustainability coordinators, diversity specialists, communications officers and “assistant deans of everything.”

Some speculate that entertainment and activities like rock climbing attribute to the high costs of college.

Other Americans attribute the rising cost of colleges to a lack of state funding. This applies exclusively to public universities, but the claim has merit. It is common for people to believe that state funding has significantly decreased for public universities and that they therefore attempt to compensate with higher tuition rates. The New York Times refutes this, claiming that state legislative appropriations for higher education have increased greatly, reaching a record high of more than 86 billion dollars in 2009. Their claim is that although there are more federal appropriations for higher education, it costs huge sums of money to accommodate the growing number of students attending college. This means that the per capita subsidies for students are decreasing while tuition costs increase. Interestingly enough, NYT also takes an opposing stance on Dr. Richard Vedder’s claim that professors’ salaries contribute to the rising cost of college. The author, Paul Campos, claims that teachers’ salaries do not raise the cost of college. He cites that many faculty members are lower-paid part-time employees, meaning that “the average salaries of the people who do the teaching in American higher education are actually quite a bit lower than they were in 1970.” This is a claim that Forbes explores as well, stating that while students are paying more than ever, the salaries of teachers have not seen much of an increase. The magazine argues that this money goes to universities’ administration and that this is where most growth is occurring.

69% of college students take out loans for their education each year.

Regardless of what one may believe, it is impossible to deny that college tuition fees are becoming more and more expensive. There is so much speculation as to why the costs of receiving higher education are so outrageously high, but the one thing Americans can agree upon is the fact that attending college is simply not affordable. These costs and the student loans that they require affect graduates for a large fraction of their lives. College is a necessity for students who want to succeed because in today’s job market, educated employees are in high demand. As it becomes more mainstream for millennials to enter the workforce with degrees, more employees expect higher education as criteria. More advanced degrees or more prestigious schools put students with these credentials on top for employers but also place the heavy weight of debt on graduates. Although their education helps them land better jobs, many students’ loans leave them struggling financially for years.

Higher education is vital to our society today, but it is rapidly becoming less and less affordable for a generation that needs college degrees. College is more popular now than it has ever been because millennials want an education that will give them the tools to succeed. Students enter college with the hope of getting an education that will help them find a solid career making a livable wage, but even with solid jobs after school, students are restricted by the loans they struggle to pay off. The main goal of universities across the nation should be to educate their students and to prepare them instead of gaining revenue. While graduates with degrees are certainly entering the world with the education they need to join the workforce, the cost of college and their student loans keep them far from success and stability for years. They may possess the academic preparation that they are guaranteed, but not the proper financial preparedness to live independently. It is about time that universities in America begin to consider not just students’ academic proficiency as something they need to leave school with, but also the proper finances to support themselves after college. Higher education institutions must focus on what’s important: educating their students and preparing them to enter adulthood with confidence. This is far more important than becoming more competitive with each passing year. A school that provides an education, but leaves students broke has missed the point of higher education. As put by Allesandra Lanza from U.S. News and World Report, “while higher education is still a great investment, we should recognize that there are downsides if a more highly educated generation becomes a more indebted one.”