We Need to Talk about American College Tuition

College students are overwhelmed with a tangle of loans and high tuition prices (Photo: courtesy of The Balance)

by Josephine Rivera-Hoagland, features editor

As Maria Carrillo’s class of 2022 wraps up their final year, many seniors are deciding which college to head off to and making note of the various offered scholarships, FAFSA aid and Cal Grants. The cost of their Bachelor’s Degree may ultimately exceed $400,000 without careful consideration, and without intervention, such costs will likely continue to rise.  For this reason, the United States must fix its approach to higher education in order to continue as the head of progress in the western world or else face a brain drain to more appreciative countries.

However, despite the Biden administration’s commitment to affordable higher education, a divided Congress refused to pass the Build Back Better Plan without several cuts, among them the provision for two free years of community college in 2021. With such a loss, one thing is made remarkably clear: Our government has no genuine desire to invest in the social mobility of its citizens. According to averages from the Social Security Administration, throughout their lifetimes, men with degrees end up making over $900,000 more than men without, while college educated women make about $630,000 more. In addition, those with degrees are more likely to be above the poverty line, report feeling happier and have longer lives. But with all these benefits, the most the federal government is willing to do is give a handful of students aid, while the rest are thrown to the wolves–a.k.a. forced to take out loans, accruing a total of $1.75 trillion in American student loan debt. College has become an asset to the rich and fantasy for the poor.

Although more aid would be helpful, the outrageous tuition prices alone demand regulation. With most products (which the college experience is, something for sale), affordable but functioning goods dominate the market. However, the acceptance rates of universities, such as those famously slim chances of the Ivy League or certain liberal arts colleges, seem to epitomize the dramatic climb in tuition prices. Take Northeastern University, a research university in Boston, Massachusetts. In 2010, according to Tuition Tracker, Northeastern charged about $52,000 per year as its sticker price and had an acceptance rate of a little over 40%. This past year, Northeastern cost about $76,000 and had an acceptance rate of about 20%, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Adjusting for inflation, that’s still an increase of over $8,000 in a 10 year period, correlating to the halving of its acceptance rate. Even including public universities, the average tuition cost of college, adjusting for inflation, is 130% the average in 1990. This increase doesn’t even include the costs of housing, meal plans and textbooks. Students who work hard in high school deserve to go to a good college regardless of individual income level. They don’t deserve to pay off loans for the rest of their lives.

On the other end of the spectrum, the “cheaper” goods, or state universities, have not managed to cut tuition prices. Over the past twenty years, tuition for in-state students at universities has increased by nearly $8,000. Most high school students will end up at a state school or community college, and such price hikes only deter potential students from attending. The public demands easy access to higher education, and yet, even our public four-year universities refuse to open their doors any more.

There are a few ways to fix this system: State schools, like the University of California, could charge a fraction of what their current cost is, or even cover it completely, making four year universities more accessible to low-income students. This would spur a competition to decrease tuition for students in either public or private schools. The second option would be for Congress to place a tuition cap on universities across the nation; however, the backlash would be immediate, with courts inundated by legal challenges. Third, all universities could be subsidized by the federal government–the most drastic action, but also the best option for private college students. 

In all of the above situations, politicians would have to concede that education matters more than the government deficit or tax hikes. Yes, the nation would have to spend more in order to increase college attendance, but an investment in our students now is an investment in the future of this country. Equal access to higher education is not a partisan issue. Let’s hope that both sides can admit that.

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