The spike in tuition

A good friend of mine shared this link on Facebook.

I liked the article, interesting read — up until it claimed that it was the shift in ideology that caused the tuition spike. I agree, to some extent, that a shift in ideology would cause people to value different things differently. But especially the line that “The Reagan administration was always hostile to universities and loved to bemoan the tuition spiral; what’s more, over the period in question, the universities themselves embraced a hyper-leftist public image that helped them distract attention from the catastrophe they have visited upon the nation’s young.”

So, wait… we got more conservative. I’ll buy that. Reagan disliked universities. I don’t know that I buy that — I’d need to see the evidence — but it sounds plausible. So, we punish them by letting them charge as much as they want to?

College tuition has spiked because it can spike and people send their kids to college more frequently. Because we have this idea that only college graduates are meaningful, high school diplomas have been devalued. So, everybody needs a college degree. Except: a) lots of people who go to college don’t graduate and b) lots of jobs that “require” a college degree do not, in fact, require one.

Set that aside. The mentality is what matters: Everybody has to go to college, because reasons. So how do we pay for it? Loans. Not grants, not scholarships. Loans. Long term loans with low interest that are incredibly easy to get.

So, my argument is this: tuition prices spiked because the direct effects of tuition spikes aren’t noticeable if you’re going to school via loans. Which is probably a majority of people. We all think “MUST HAVE DEGREE” and “paying $240,000 in 30+ years isn’t so bad!”

How do we fix this? There are a few options: 1) make student loans much more difficult to get and/or make repayment more immediate, so a lot of these students will look for jobs instead of wasting their time in college. If the supply of students dry up, colleges either tuition prices or suffer. Employers learn to suck it up and lower their standards for frivolous college degrees. This is my preferred solution.

2) Accept that education is a public good. That means, it needs to be government funded. If everybody needs a degree, and we aren’t willing to accept anything less, then the solution is surprisingly simple: tuition should be free or very close to it. Government (state governments, ideally, but federal government could cut a few checks if needed) gives grants to universities, accepts that it won’t see a direct ROI, and leaves the universities alone. This is a less elegant solution, admittedly. It allows the potential for corruption, but I’m loathe to have government inspectors coming in every so often to figure out if we’re teaching kids valuable skills or not. Any and all education is a good thing (one of the few absolutes in life I do ascribe to), and we accept that the cost of greater education is worth paying, communally. Tighten tax loopholes (which Obama, to his credit, is already doing) and let that pay for the cost.

3) Variation of #1. Tie loan repayment to performance in college. Right now, the grace period lasts as long as you are enrolled in school (unless you consolidate — fuck you, Sallie Mae) at least half time. This is a bad system. Why? Because all you need to do is take classes and not be expelled to not pay loans back. So you’re in college for 20 years, with no degrees? Big deal. Still get to keep drawing on new loans and not paying for the old ones.

The simplest way is this — you get four years. No degree? No grace period. Of course, there are legitimate reasons to extend your stay in college, and so you would be able to submit an exemption form to get this taken care of. You could also tie it to GPA, but GPA is flawed to begin with, and I prefer universities to set their own GPA minimums.

4) Federally mandated ceiling on the price of tuition, tied to inflation and/or cost of living as appropriate. I like this option the least. It is better than doing nothing: much better. However, the response will be unpredictable: loss of tenure, or making tenure track jobs (which are already very difficult to get) even harder to get? Even more overworked adjuncts? Firing administrators with disgustingly bloated salaries? Treat Division 1 sports as a pro league and let it finance itself? Lots of solutions there (some good, some bad), but it will fix the problem.

The important thing is that the Obama administration policy will not lower the cost of college. It will make the cost more bearable, and I’m all for that, but it only treats the symptoms, not the disease. We need to fight the disease. If only there were some place we could train medical professionals… I hear it’s too expensive to go to, though.

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