There are a few things more complicated than understanding our current college system in the United States. Why does my wife talks in her sleep? I still don’t have an answer for that one. The causality between donuts and weight gain. It’s a mystery and you can’t tell me any different. Quantum mechanics in a vacuum. By this, I mean an actual vacuum because mine is always filled with dog hair, and yet, dog hair remains all over my house. But when it comes to the whole process of colleges, that’s about as reality bending as you can get.
As President Biden’s recent student loan forgiveness plan takes effect, you can imagine that I am paying attention. With two kids in high school, my obvious first question was What’s Next? Paying for college is a topic that lives in my head rent free, as it does for many parents. So, I began to look around to discover how we were going to prevent this again in the future. How can we actually make college affordable? I should have stuck to the quantum mechanics.
No one has any realistic idea about how to make college affordable. Or I should say, no one has an action plan that anyone could agree on. There is more of a consensus on the existence of UFOs than there is on how to make going to college a possibility without selling a couple of kidneys. And by the way, selling kidneys is about as realistic as any other plans out there.
But what bothers me most is that we are skipping the big question in all of this to begin with. How did college get so unaffordable? What happened?
We did this to ourselves
Sit back and relax as I play the “Back in My Day Card.” It’s what us old people like to do. Back in my day, I paid roughly a hundred dollars a credit hour for tuition. To stay in the dorm, some of which didn’t have AC in Texas, was about 3000 a semester with a meal plan. When I moved out, I paid 300 a month for a three-bedroom apartment with 2 roommates. I budgeted a 100 a month for food. Utilities ran me about 50 bucks a month. School books were my biggest expense, and it was about 600 dollars a semester. Sometimes a little more if I bought a book with the intention to return it so I could have some spending cash where my father wouldn’t know. (He knew). Let’s say this was 1995.
So, if we total that all up, say while I was in the dorm, it cost me around 5,000 a semester. That’s for everything, not just tuition. Minimum wage was around $4.25 an hour. Currently, the average cost for just tuition at a 4-year university is a little over 9K. That doesn’t count housing, food, or any of the other necessities of life. So, I ask, what the hell man?
People give a lot of reasons for the increase in college, specifically over the last 20 years. Deregulation in Texas, state cuts to education, the availability of student loans, increased attendance, inflation, student amenities, ballooning administrative costs, and probably a donut budget increase. At least in my world. And those are all true but miss the point. It doesn’t get to the root cause of the question.
Why has the cost of college gotten so high?
Because this is what we voted for. Or should I say, a certain generation voted for. That’s the reality of what happened.
A large generation enjoyed all the benefits of a better funded public education system and then promptly shut it down once they had realized all those benefits. It’s no more complicated than that. Generations that screamed at how expensive it was to pay a hundred dollars a semester hour actually got it increased. On purpose. State funding was slashed, but that didn’t mean the taxes went away. It just means that the burden was pushed onto 18-year-old kids that somehow can enter into a contract to take out a six-figure loan.
Wages stagnated, again, on purpose. Colleges and universities became even a bigger business than before, and endowments grew. As of now, 19% of colleges have endowments of over a billion dollars. This is not money from tuition mind you, this is from gifts that the university has received. There are other dollars that make up endowments, but the majority is still from gifts. The largest endowment is Harvard at 42 billion. The University of Texas has a nice 31-billion-dollar endowment.
We have turned college into a huge business, stripped away any realistic way to pay for it that doesn’t include some form of indentured servitude, and shifted the tax burden to the middle class and poor in the form of student loans as a way to pay for it. Instead, we have 11 aircraft carriers and no universal healthcare. And again, we have voted for the people that have made that possible.
Is there a solution?
So, let’s get to some solutions. Or at least ones that have been floated around. There is, of course, the military. They will pay for your education if you risk your life for 4 years. Then, when you get out, you might have PTSD, a 53% higher suicide rate than the general public, homelessness, and a healthcare system that is shattered. For a country that has no problem paying 20 straight years of war, this seems like a pretty big risk.
Others talk about going into the trades, and frankly, I think this is insulating to all the craftsmen and women that I know. We shouldn’t talk about being an electrician as being an easy job. That being a welder is the safe bet. Like any profession, it takes skill and perseverance. Saying that a trade is an easy and safe bet is degrading to those professions. It’s hard damn work and not everyone is going to have the skill set for it. It’s like saying, well, everyone should look into being an accountant.
Then there are scholarships, grants, and other student aid. Believe me when I tell you that the system for this is as complex as any other in the college arena. It’s going piecemeal and filling out hundreds of applications for 500-dollar scholarships. It’s so much a patchwork of funding that it’s difficult to find. There is even a sub market of people that get paid to do this all day.
This is the world that we have left to our children after many of us have pillaged the benefits given to us. We have taken everything and not only closed the door behind us, we have burned the house down and put its ashes in a Pandora’s box. And keep in mind the way the argument around solutions is presented. All of this is about how we pay for college. None of it even begins to touch lowering tuition or making it affordable. That argument isn’t even on the table apparently.
An education remains the best way to provide for a stable future and middle class. Without it, the income inequality gap will continue to sky rocket and our children will hope that one day they can work hard enough to afford their heart attack and still have enough to make their student loan payment.
$10,000 off a student loan is not a god send. It’s an insult. But hey, the wealthy got a huge tax break and a ton of PPP loans that were easily forgiven. So at least there is that.