We, the people, are being priced out of education

Written by: Carl Fedorko

Carl Fedorko, Editor in Chief

I was arguing with the God of the Mercer Bookstore about why I didn’t need a receipt to exchange the book I had for the book I needed.

“They’re identically priced. I just want to use the dollars I already paid you for this book,” I thumped the history text like it was a bible, “for the book I need. You can have this book back. I don’t even want it.”

The Bookstore God said no. I said “You’re basically stealing my hundred bucks. You know you won’t buy this book back at the end of the semester.”

She rolled her eyes and said “The book you want, it’s not even in stock. Won’t be here for a week.”

Before I said anything further that I wouldn’t have said in front of my grandma, I had a realization: since the college enrolled more students than they had books available, my castigating the Mercer God’s anti-logic in the middle of the bookstore would prove a fruitless endeavor. And I had already endured enough financial stress that day.

Earlier, the Bursar had wrongly accused me of owing money from the previous semester. “A scholarship covered my tuition last semester,” I pleaded from prayer position.

They didn’t care. They did not relent until I made good and coughed up the proverbial skrilla.

Driving home I realized that I can’t be the only one thinking this college thing feels like robbery. Education means bettering myself but real self-improvement shouldn’t feel like getting ripped off.

It’s nearly a cliche: “Going to college will open the proper doors for you to be successful.” The idea is drilled into your head–literally sold to students, educators and institutions across the country, but at what cost?

American colleges and universities sell young people the idea of success at unsustainably high prices. You deserve this education you can’t afford. Student loan debt is considered “good debt,” a concept that could take root only in America. I argue there is no such thing as a “good debt” but students wait in line to buy into the higher education system and it often fast-tracks them to financial ruin.

A 2013 study by Center for American Progress found the cost of a four-year public education has increased 250 percent in the last 30 years. Meanwhile, the average US household earned merely 13.5 percent more money in 2012 than it did in 1983, according to the US Census Bureau.

If American wages increased at the same rate colleges raised tuition the average household would earn $112,342 a year, more than double the current average household income. (All monetary figures in the above paragraphs are adjusted for inflation to 2012 rates based on the Consumer Price Index as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Simply put: We, The People, are being priced-out of higher education.

The system is predicated on the idea that students are buying their way into gainful employment upon graduation but we all know that’s not true anymore. If the guarantee of a job–the one benefit that separated the educated from the uneducated–is not as sound as it used to be, why is the cost of college increasing while the value of a degree seems to be decreasing?

An April 2012 report called The Great Cost Shift: How Higher Education Cuts Undermine the Future Middle Class by DĒMOS shows how state divestment in public higher-education in the last 20 years has shifted costs to students and their families.

“Institutions have balanced the funding equation by charging students more,” the report found. It also says the real price of two-year colleges climbed by 71 percent since 1990. Your education costs you more when your state values its’ colleges and universities less.

Problems arise when you subject the educational system to capitalistic principles. Small colleges like Mercer cannot remain solvent without state funding. What this means is that a stable, predictable enrollment is the largest, most reliable revenue source for small, state-funded colleges. This fact gives colleges zero incentive to graduate or transfer students out because the more time a student spends at a school, the the more stable and predictable that schools enrollment is.

Since the school cannot guarantee that the number of new students who enroll will equal the number lost to transfer or graduation, the most financially secure strategy is bring in as many students as possible while retaining as many as they can.

The system is not designed for students to graduate on time. It’s worse for students at “two-year colleges” who often balance education with employment and can’t manage 12 credits per semester, the federal definition of full-time student.

In “The Rise of the Five-Year Four-Year Degree,” Columbia University Professor Judith Scott-Clayton asks  “How long does it take to earn a four-year degree?” The answer? At least five years.

“It’s certainly better to complete college in five or six years than never complete at all. But stretching out a four-year degree means extra years of tuition costs, and additional years of labor market earnings and experience forgone,” she says.

Clayton cites overcrowding and a lack of incentive for institutions to get students out faster as major factors that increase time-to-degree completion. She also points out that students on financial aid pass their college bills on to taxpayers.

Sadly, however, educational debt has become the new Poll Tax.

Debt is not an investment in your future but it’s most people’s only option. This gives the illusion of choice and is nothing more than a scam.

Lenders don’t care if you find a job when you graduate. They’re looking for you to pay what you owe. A lender’s only interest is interest. Massive lending institutions like Sallie Mae have been accused of making a purposeful effort to increase student loan debt through the practice of forbearance.

Here’s an example of forbearance: say you owe $50,000 to Sallie Mae. If they push back the day your loan comes due by a year it sounds like you’re getting a break. What’s really happening is the interest is running for that whole year and it’s running on the full amount of the loan. It may benefit you in the short term but the lender takes more of your money in the long term.

Sallie Mae earned $937 million in 2012. “More than 600,000 federal student loan borrowers who entered repayment in 2010 defaulted on their loans by 2012,” according to Ticas.org.

Many college graduates earn paltry entry-level salaries that limit participation in the US consumer culture.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) released Student Loan Affordability: Analysis of Public Input on Impact and Solutions in May 2013. The study addresses the potential impact of the student debt burden, finding “young consumers have been unable to participate more fully in the housing marketplace; the segment of young consumers…interested in becoming first-time homebuyers…face new barriers to homeownership.”

The future does not look promising as long as the term debt is a requirement for a stable future,.

Student loan debt is on the brink of financially crippling the purchasing power of Millennials.

However, no single entity is to blame, though.

The entire economic mindset that values goods based on scarcity and buying things one cannot afford is unsustainable. The American financial system ensures the people who most benefit from the status quo are the least inclined to change it.

Education has unimpeachable benefits but if you have to borrow an exorbitant amount of money to get it, it’s easy to think the only way to win this game is to not play it and you might be right.

I’m arrogant enough to think I have the solutions to all the problems I see or even worse to try and tell you what to do with your life. I know that being informed and choosing inaction does nothing to improve the plight of those afflicted because charity will never be as effective as reform. Our generation has the duty to either change an unfair system or admit that we found apathy more attractive than involvement.

I know which side I want to be on. You decide for yourself.

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