It seems to me….
“Getting a college degree used to be free or low cost because, as a society, we saw providing higher education to young people as an investment – in them and in the future of our own country.” ~ Pramila Jayapal.
Higher educational attainment in the U.S. is becoming an increasing priority at a time when financial support to educational institutions is being reduced resulting in prohibitive student expenditures. Education has become so financially burdensome that it has distorted the choices students make. Even medical doctors must become specialists as general practice is insufficient to pay their educational financial burden.
Not only has education become increasingly expensive, educational institutions are receiving much less public funding at a time when a college degree is becoming increasingly important. The percentage of graduate students taking out over $40k in loans to pay for their studies increased from 14 percent in 2004 to 47 percent in 2012 – student debt now exceeds $1.2 trillion, an amount borrowers can never hope to repay.
The amount community colleges spent on debt interest per year increased 76 percent between 2003 and 2012. The increase for state colleges was 45 percent. For students, the cost of going to a community college rose 31 percent over the past ten years. The comparable cost at state colleges was 40 percent.
College debt in the U.S. has increased over 200 percent, roughly tripled, since 2006 and now exceeds $1.5 trillion, second only to mortgage debt. One in five adult Americans, as many as 44.7 million, have student loan debt. While most Americans with student debt are young, the number of Americans 60 and older struggling to pay off either their own loans or debt they assumed for their children or grandchildren has more than doubled in the last decade making them the fastest-growing age group among student loan borrowers.
The average monthly student loan payment ranges from $200 to $300 and many borrowers struggle to repay their loans – borrowers with low balances are the most likely to default. Much of it has to do with the level of educational attainment. While there is a student loan debt crisis, it is even worse for those not having completed their degree, have incurred student debt, but do not have the higher income advantage a degree would provide. They are left with the financial burden but not the value of that credential to allow them to earn as much as they need to pay off the loan. Students who drop out of college are therefore more likely to default on their student loans than graduates.
Across much of the world, a public-university education is free or nearly free, apart from the cost of books and living expenses. In China, India, the Scandinavian countries, France, and elsewhere, all education is completely free for those who qualify. Some countries, including Denmark, emphasize educational degrees encouraging their best students to become teachers and pay them accordingly; they not only get completely free education up to and including a PhD, they also get a stipend to pay their living expenses.
But students in the U.S. and Britain must pay tuition fees which are high and growing still higher. In Britain, a change in the law in 1998 allowed public universities to begin charging. The average tuition fee at four-year public universities in the U.S. has roughly tripled over the past three decades after adjusting for inflation. Rising fees represent an evolution towards a means-tested approach to covering the rising cost of higher education which has gone up steadily all around the world. Places like the U.S. and Britain pass some of this increase on to students in the form of higher fees, with the mostly unacknowledged understanding that poorer students will receive financial aid while richer ones will bear the full cost of tuition.
A student’s financial situation should not prohibit them from pursuing their dreams. While all postsecondary education at an accredited public university or technical school, which historically have been the traditional educational provider for the majority of the U.S. population, should be free or, at a minimum, all associated expenses be fully tax deductible, especially for those majoring in STEM subject areas or honorably discharged from military service.
Some ask why taxpayers’ money should be spent on the children of the wealthy rather than more generous financial aid for the poor? While some might consider it unfair, the simplest answer is that administrative costs are lower rather than relying on inefficient, expensive means-testing to determine eligibility. There isn’t any objection to providing K-12 education to all, why should college be any different. Additionally, a higher percentage of children with wealthy parents attend private colleges rather than public ones so would be less likely to receive assistance.
Private colleges and universities must always remain as viable educational alternatives. For-profit universities can be extremely profitable and while many provide an excellent education opportunity, many others are of considerably less value with students at those schools responsible for 75 percent of student debt defaults. For profit educational institutions on average spend about 42 percent of their annual budget on marketing or investor payout and only 17 percent on instruction.
Many in the growing field of Democratic 2020 Presidential candidates have proposed reforming the nation’s student loan programs, including dramatic restructuring of existing refinancing structures. Tuition-free higher education was a mainstay of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential run but Elizabeth Warren appears to be the first to propose flat-out debt cancellation. A number of senators, including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand have signed on as co-sponsors of Sanders’ 2017 College for All Act. The plan would eliminate undergraduate tuition and fees at public colleges and universities by allocating $47 billion annually to states to cover two-thirds of the tuition obligation leaving states responsible for the rest. It would also lower interest rates on student loans and allow those carrying existing debt to refinance their loans.
Warren and others, including Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris are backing Sen. Brian Schatz’s Debt-Free College Act, an ambitious plan with an even higher estimated price tag, about $90 billion, that would cover costs beyond tuition, such as books and living expenses, without necessitating loans for students attending a public college.
Other candidates have a wide variety of other plans to alleviate student debt and once again make education affordable for all. While well-meaning, all current plans are necessarily flawed. Student debt does need to be eliminated. Access to higher education should be a basic right but a single one-time elimination of student debt does not solve the problems of a fundamentally broken system. The problem will persist until the reason why students are forced into debt is resolved.
Federal/state cost sharing will be required as many states would strongly object to being compelled to cover all advanced educational costs. Student loan resolution should be treated separately from education affordability. Rather than simply eliminating college tuition, the program should, at least initially, rather than being prepaid, be a reimbursement program for students attending a public institution (university, college, or vocational school) fully accredited by a national accredited agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (DoED) such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). The DoED also recognizes State agencies for the approval of public postsecondary vocational and nurse education.
Additionally, programs, departments, or schools that are part of an accredited institution should be approved for specialized or programmatic accreditation by organizations recognized within their specific discipline such as the National Association of Schools of Art and Design or the National Association of Schools of Theatre which accredits program areas within the arts; the American Bar Association for schools of law; Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) for applied science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology at the associate, bachelor, and master degree levels; or the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International) which grants national accreditation to undergraduate and graduate business administration and accounting degree programs. Other additional recognized accrediting agencies also exist.
Additionally, the DoED should determine those institutions and degree programs within an institution that provide students the best overall experience and return on investment (ROI). Ranking metrics should include student satisfaction, graduation rate, debt, and post-graduate success providing students sufficient information to determine the worth of attending that institution and program. (Most colleges and universities have always objected to such rankings as they recognize some of their degree programs do not provide any appreciable value.)
Reimbursement should be for all charges; including tuition, fee, room and board, books, etc.; within those fully-accredited programs at fully-accredited public institutions of higher educational and only to those students maintaining a 3.0 or better academic average. There isn’t any perfect assistance program. It must be acknowledged that this would not completely eliminate the need for students to incur debt but would provide an incentive for diligence and concentration for costs to be reimbursed. This program also would not initially reimburse expenses of students associated with living off-campus, transportation, or other related expenses.
The U.S. needs to revive its innovative capabilities if it is to survive. This will require increased investments in education, research, and development (especially in science and technology – many more people major in underwater basket weaving than will ever possibly be needed). If we fail to educate students to innovate, will not encourage highly qualified immigrants, and are discouraging new technology imports, how can we even hope to grow our economy?
That’s what I think, what about you?
 Pramila Jayapal is an U.S. politician and activist who currently serves as the Representative from Washington’s 7th Congressional district. Born in Chennai, India, and raised in Indonesia and Singapore, she is the first Indian-American woman to serve in the House of Representatives.
 Gregorian, Dareh. Growing Student Debt Crisis: Candidates Say Cancel It Free College, Refinance, NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2020-election/massive-student-debt-piling-so-are-candidates-solutions-n987741?cid=eml_nbn_20190330, 14 March 2019.
 S.1373 – College for All Act, https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/1373.
 S.672 – Debt-Free College Act of 2019, https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/672/text.