Making college affordable is vital to America | Don Brunell

When my parents graduated from high school in 1936, a college education was too expensive for the son of a copper miner and the daughter of a plumber.Eighty years ago, our country was in the middle of the Great Depression and teens took odd jobs to help put food on the table and pay the family bills. In those days, no bank would lend money to college students.

When my parents graduated from high school in 1936, a college education was too expensive for the son of a copper miner and the daughter of a plumber. Eighty years ago, our country was in the middle of the Great Depression and teens took odd jobs to help put food on the table and pay the family bills. In those days, no bank would lend money to college students.

Following World War II, there was new hope. The GI bill paid for veterans to complete their college or trade school education. My father, for example, graduated from trade schools in Seattle and Chicago and became a journeyman electrician, thanks to Uncle Sam.

In the 1960s, the federal government introduced the work-study program, allowing students from middle- and low-income families to work their way through college.  I found jobs and fortunately didn’t have to borrow money to complete my degree.

Today, it is a much different story. Student loans are the norm rather than the exception. As a result, student loan debt has shot past $1.2 trillion and more than 20 percent of American households have student debts averaging $33,000.  

Student loan debt is even more common among dependent undergrads from low- and middle-income families. The Department of Education reports that in 2012, 44 percent of these students had student loan debts of more than $12,400.

Adding insult to injury, when these students graduate, many can’t find work in their degree fields and end up in jobs that were once the domain of high school students. This widespread underemployment, with its lower salaries, is one of the reasons student loan default rates are 14 percent higher than for mortgages, cars and credits cards, according to the Wall Street Journal.

A big contributor to student indebtedness is skyrocketing tuition.

Since the 1970s, tuition has shot up by 1,000 percent while the consumer-price index climbed by 240 percent.  By 2010, it took 36 percent of annual household income to pay the average private four-year tuition, up from 16 percent in 1970.

Frank Mussano and Robert Losue, co-authors of “College Tuition: Four Years of Financial Deception,” focus on three reasons for mushrooming tuition: reduced teaching loads, higher number of administrators and extravagant buildings such as luxury dorms.

The U.S. Dept. of Education reports that the number of college administrators has increased 50 percent faster than instructors since 2001. For example, the University of Minnesota added 1,000 administrators in the past decade and now there is one administrator for every 3.5 students on the Minneapolis campus. The non-teaching staff at the University of Pennsylvania swelled by 83 percent, a rate far greater than the growth in student enrollment.

Second, the average professor spends much less time in the classroom even though enrollments are increasing.  The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA reports that, in 2010, 44 percent of full-time faculty spent nine or more hours a week in the classroom, compared to 12-15 hours in 1989.

Third, higher education construction spending has doubled since 1994. It peaked at $15 billion in 2006 and has leveled off to $11 billion.  Paying off those construction bonds is expensive.

Mussano and Losue argue that higher education needs performance audits, much like those the government conducts on defense contractors, hospitals, social agencies and other businesses that get tax dollars.  They believe the resulting cost reductions could bring tuition increases more in line with the consumer price index.

Whether you agree with them or not, the fact is the traditional college education on a university campus is slipping away from many families.   While it may open new opportunities for on-line universities, in the long run, it is not good for America.

 


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Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at thebrunells@msn.com.
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