In 1965, Yale and Princeton raised their tuition, making them the most expensive Ivy League schools at the time. The hefty price tag? Just $1950 a year. Even accounting for inflation that would only amount to about $14,350 in 2013 dollars. Tuition at Princeton is now north of $40,000 a year, and it is close to $60,000 a year at institutions like University of Chicago or Sarah Lawrence College. Even in-state tuition at public college averages over $13,000 year, making the price of a “cheap” bachelor’s degree well over $50,000.
The typical response to how college tuition has been regularly outpaced inflation is to call for increasing available financial aid. Leaving aside well-founded concerns that increased aid actually fuels rising tuition, there are other problems with this approach. Chief among them is the fact that most financial aid comes in the form of federally subsidized loans. Increased financial aid does not usually mean decreasing the cost of college; it means increasing the debt incurred by students.
As I’ve written before, American students and graduates now carry a collective $1 trillion in student loan debt, and black students hold a disproportionate amount. The rising number of people with bachelor’s degrees actually decreases their competitive value. In too many cases, individuals go deeply in debt for degrees that do little to make them more employable. The issue of rising debt goes beyond finances. Graduates facing large student loan balances delay marriage, home ownership and other stabilizing life decisions. Increased financial aid promises increase these problems.
Yet, some leaders have taken a different approach. Both Texas and Florida are trying to lower the actual cost of a four year degree without further burdening their taxpayers. Last year, Governor Perry and Governor Scott issued a challenge to their public university systems to make a bachelor’s degree available for $10,000 or less. Using a combination of online course work and other creative methods, 22 colleges between the two states have developed proposals to make this a reality. Majors were limited, but they included subjects like chemistry, information technology, mathematics and computer science.
In the middle of Philadelphia, my colleague Reverend Herb Lusk’s People for People Institute offers students—typically single mothers and other disenfranchised individuals—the chance to earn an Eastern University associates’ or bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, Business, and Communications. Tuition is kept very low, free childcare is provided during classes, and extra tutoring and support are available for students in need. Most importantly, these accredited degrees are offered in fields that lead to immediate employment with advancement possibilities.
Critics of these new approaches are worried about the decline in quality of education obtained in non-traditional ways. I am sympathetic to their concerns. However, any such objections need to be kept in perspective. I wrote last year about the high unemployment rate among graduates with Ph.D.’s in the sciences. Too many students are graduating from traditional colleges deeply in debt and then facing unemployment, or taking jobs for which they are over qualified. In fact, numbers recently released by the US Department of Labor show that 48% of college graduates are employed in positions that do not require a college degree.
College was once thought of as the passport to the middle class. Millions of poor and working class families sacrificed to put their children through college with the understanding that if they could just get that degree, the world would be open to them. Now college graduates are just as likely to be driving a cab, managing a retail store or waiting tables as working their way up the corporate ladder. There is nothing wrong with driving a cab, but it does not make good financial sense to go into debt for college if that is what you will end up doing.
For minorities, however, the dream of traditional college leading to upward mobility will still remain true. Unfortunately, community colleges often fail to produce the genuine academic skills that make their minority graduates more employable.
The $10,000 degree in Texas and Florida or the People for People Institute may not be the best option for every student. But the effort to lower the cost of college tuition is long overdue. If more universities can begin to look for creative, competitive solutions to make college more affordable, we may be able to reverse the dangerous trend of rising student debt.
I am recommending to students in my church that they consider taking a lot of electives in online institutions such as Regent University which has been named one of the top ten online universities in America and whose cost per credit hour is easily affordable on a pay-as-you-go basis. We have also experimented with creating internships for our young church members that will allow them to develop practical life skills, serve the community and study online while they are amassing the financial profile to attend more prestigious universities or institutions of higher learning. I believe that the famous financial expert Dave Ramsey, the great missionary Mother Teresa and many philanthropists would agree that in this day and age education has to be about measurable “bang for the buck.”