According to The College Board, in inflation-adjusted dollars, the cost of tuition more than doubled between 1973 and 2013; per student borrowing increased from $1,066 in 1970 to $6,928 in 2012; the number of borrowers more than doubled over the past decade; and 41 percent of student borrowers who began college in 2003 had at least $10,000 in educational debt in 2009. (5 percent had at least $50,000 in debt.) Even more troubling, 15 percent of those not enrolled and with no degree had between $10,000 and $30,000 in such debt.
Where will it stop? Is college worth the cost? What’s the alternative?
The value question is the easiest. The average college graduate makes about $18,000 more per year than the average high school graduate. But we all know stories of college graduates with “soft” degrees waiting on tables, selling clothes, counting out money at a bank window, struggling to pay off their loans.
What can students, parents and counselors do to help students of various backgrounds access and afford higher education? Positive options exist:
Pre-College: College-bound students can shorten the time and expense of college by taking Advanced Placement courses in high school. Recently more school systems have been encouraging more challenged students to take these courses and provided additional support. Just recently, Connecticut announced a partnership among Norwalk High School, Norwalk Community College and IBM to bring selected 9th graders into the new “Pathways in Technology Early College High School” that will allow graduates to emerge with a high school diploma and associates college degree. In addition, four Connecticut community colleges have established “Manufacturing Technology Centers” that promise those who complete one or two demanding years a nearly 100 percent job placement.
The Khan Academy, renowned for its free, easy-to-understand U-Tube tutorials on basic and advanced math and science, recently added a free SAT prep course.
Community and online College: While many middle-class parents continue to see a four-year college as the goal, more students from diverse backgrounds seek less expensive options, especially community college, with an average cost for two semesters about $4,000 in Connecticut. For others, including adults, Charter Oak State College offers the least expensive choice via online courses.
Financial aid and debt: Although the ability of colleges and universities to increase financial aid varies dramatically, public and private institutions are exploring all possible means to do this in spite of decreasing state support. Many private colleges and some public institutions have secured foundation and alumni gifts to provide scholarships to needy students. Loans will, however, continue to be essential.
Similarly, discussions are progressing in Washington to index student debt to income, put a time limit on college debt and reduce the “profit” that the Federal Government is earning from student loan interest payments. A bi-partisan group of senators is discussing changing bankruptcy laws to allow college debts to be written off, like credit card and other debt.
The college access and affordability puzzle is complicated, and for students without savvy families or counselors, often not affordable. But many people in government, in kindergarten to 12th grade, in higher education and in community-based agencies are working on and advocating for the kinds of changes outlined above. As a nation, we cannot afford in the long-term to do otherwise. As a state, let us lead.
David Johnston is director of the Center for Higher Education Retention Excellence in Hartford.