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.
WHO REALLY PAYS FOR THE RISING COST OF COLLEGE?
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.