The Debt Crisis at American Colleges

Borrowing looms large in American life from homes to cars. But the explosion of student debt in the last decade is a pernicious trend that the colleges themselves are encouraging.

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How do colleges manage it? Kenyon has erected a $70 million sports palace featuring a 20-lane olympic pool. Stanford's professors now get paid sabbaticals every fourth year, handing them $115,000 for not teaching. Vanderbilt pays its president $2.4 million. Alumni gifts and endowment earnings help with the costs. But a major source is tuition payments, which at private schools are breaking the $40,000 barrier, more than many families earn. Sadly, there's more to the story. Most students have to take out loans to remit what colleges demand. At colleges lacking rich endowments, budgeting is based on turning a generation of young people into debtors.

As this semester begins, college loans are nearing the $1 trillion mark, more than what all households owe on their credit cards. Fully two-thirds of our undergraduates have gone into debt, many from middle class families, who in the past paid for much of college from savings. The College Board likes to say that the average debt is "only" $27,650. What the Board doesn't say is that when personal circumstances go wrong, as can happen in a recession, interest, late payment penalties, and other charges can bring the tab up to $100,000. Those going on to graduate school, as upwards of half will, can end up facing twice that.

Students are now more than $1 trillion in debt to their college educations, yet schools are encouraging the cycle.

A fact of academic life is that the tuition-debt nexus keeps most colleges going. At Loyola University in Chicago, 77 percent enroll with loans, as do 85 percent in New Hampshire's Franklin Pierce. At historically black colleges, where endowments are low and students are often poor, it's usually 90 percent. Nor is soaring private tuition the only reason. At public Kentucky State University, with only $6,210 in charges, 76 percent sign up for loans; so do 85 percent at the University of North Dakota, where state residents pay $6,934. What these figures suggest that borrowing is as much to finance living away from home as for bursars' bills. Books, travel, and socializing quickly add up. Room and board charges have doubled in actual dollars since 1982 to enhance campus life. Bowdoin's menu features vegetable polenta and butternut soup, while Penn State provides legal downloads of music numbering two million songs a week. But let's be clear. It's not the colleges which are paying for these and similar amenities. It's the students, mainly by borrowing, which the colleges actively encourage.

(Read our interview with the authors about their book Higher Education?)

Why has tuition climbed to $41,304 at Carleton, $42,384 at Wesleyan, and $43,190 at Vassar, three times over inflation since 1982? The short answer is that colleges have embraced a host of extraneous activities - from obscure sports to overseas centers - and tacked most or all of their tabs onto students' bills. Unlike businesses, which cut losing operations, colleges simply hike their tuitions. In our view, good higher education could be had at much lower costs. It belongs on the nation's agenda, up there with preserving Social Security and Medicare.


Of course, borrowing looms large in American life: homes, cars, boats, even buying stocks on margin. But student loans are taken out by eighteen-year-old freshmen, not exactly the most experienced clientele, nor can this be assumed of all parents. Indeed, the lending industry's lobbyists ensured that teenagers can sign up on their own, even before they're able to order wine with dinner. And unlike cars and boats, college repayments can dunned for several decades.

Nor is it just about money. There are moral dimensions as well. Recent actions by Dartmouth and Williams, two wealthy schools, convey a lot about academic priorities. In the past, both schools announced that anyone they accepted would be able to enroll without having to take out loans. That is, the colleges would ensure all the aid that was needed to make attendance possible. This was heralded as the kind of noblesse oblige we hope for from well-off institutions. That was before 2008. But when Dartmouth and Williams' endowments tanked, hard decisions had to be made. Among the first was telling their needy students they would henceforward have to borrow, just like those at Loyola and Franklin Pierce. What struck us was who was chosen for sacrifice. At no point did their senior professors, whose total packages average $189,600, volunteer to take even a five percent cut. That could have preserved many if not most of the scholarships.

One reason why more students are borrowing is that few parents pay all or even most of college costs, a trend underway well before the recession. Last year, a typical family with college-age children spent $3,102 on dining out, but only $2,055 on education. Only half of entering freshmen say their parents had put anything aside; and of those who did, half had banked less than $20,000.

Some may have been listening to Suze Orman, who for a long time was telling them "no parent should have to be responsible for financing his or her child's education." Her logic was that with student loan rates so low, it's wiser to put your spare money elsewhere. What's disturbing is that few parents kick in when students start having to repay. Not to mention that starting jobs don't offer much leeway dealing with loans.

Presented by

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

Andrew Hacker teaches at Queens College and Claudia Dreifus is on the faculty as Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. They are the authors of Higher Education?, which has recently been released in paperback by St.Martin's/Griffin.

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