The cost of attending college has risen 250 percent in the past three decades. In response, students are taking on record amounts of debt to finance their educations. That debt load now totals nearly $1 trillion. Many students face decades of loan payments that will cripple their ability to climb the economic ladder.
That inflation shows no signs of slowing down. Average tuition and fees at four-year institutions rose more than 4 percent last year alone, according to the College Board.
President Obama used his trip to Buffalo last week to promote some ways to slow the price spiral that threatens to squeeze the middle class out of college. His proposals deserve a look, as do other innovative ideas being tried across the country.
Selecting a college is often a confusing process. Obama proposed removing some of the mystery by setting up a system that allows students and their parents to compare not only college costs, but also graduation rates. Schools that don’t measure up would lose federal aid.
The system will have to be set up to measure the right variables, and monitored to ensure colleges aren’t somehow gaming the system, but more information should help the decision-making process.
Recognizing that the federal government doesn’t have the answers, Obama wants to reward colleges and universities that develop new ways to hold down costs and raise quality.
Some schools have turned to more online courses, others have allowed high school students to earn college credits and awarded credits for work accomplished rather than the number of hours spent in a classroom.
Obama proposes easing the debt burden by capping student loan repayments at 10 percent of a student’s income under the “Pay-As-You-Earn” program.
Other recent actions offer some short-term help. New federal legislation will hold down the interest rate on college loans, saving some students thousands of dollars. And the State University of New York is in the middle of a five-year “rational” tuition policy that sees tuition rise $300 each year, rather than imposing huge increases at unpredictable intervals.
Slowing the cost increase isn’t enough. The cost of a college education needs to come down.
Students can play a role by attending a state school, attending a nearby school and living at home, or attending a community college for two years, then transferring to a four-year college. And also by completing degree requirements in four years. The University at Buffalo and other schools are promoting that concept by adding seats in high-demand requirements and increasing advisement to keep students on track to graduate.
There are other innovative ideas out there. Oregon is working on an “investment approach” to student loans. Tuition at public universities would be free, but students would agree to pay 3 percent of their earnings for the first 25 years after graduation. Those who earn very little would pay very little, perhaps much less than the cost of their educations. Those who make a lot of money could end up subsidizing the system, but their earnings will be high enough to make it palatable.
Obama’s pressure to reduce the costs of a college education comes none too soon for America’s middle class. He’s right: We have to do things differently.