As was the case last summer, I’m writing this week from a meeting of the American Association of University Professors, this time hosted by Denver University and funded by the professors themselves. And as was the case last year, one of the biggest issues under discussion is the “sticker shock” caused by truly outrageous college tuition increases. Tuition hikes are the cause of student loan debt, and student loan debt nationally is now greater than credit card debt. As all of us in Denver can attest, it’s not because of increasing faculty salaries; they have not kept pace with inflation for years, not even the low level of inflation we’ve experienced since the Great Recession. Tuition, though, has increased much faster than inflation.
The reason hasn’t changed since last year. There are really three answers, and as taxpayers we can control them all. First, the accommodations for students are much better than they used to be. You may have read in the Columbia newspaper about the wonderful, brand new student housing adjacent to the University, both private and public, with more going in next year. Maybe that’s a good thing, but it comes with a cost. Second, although the “faculty to student” ratio has stayed about the same, the “administrator to student” ratio has gone up substantially in most universities. It is now the case nationwide that the salary costs for administrators take a larger piece of the pie than the salary costs for faculty. Think about what that means, in terms of what students are actually paying for (and whom they are paying) with those student loans. And finally, the price structure for higher education has changed dramatically. As of last summer (I haven’t yet seen this year’s statistics), South Carolina per-student support for higher education had dropped by 41.6% since 2008 – the 3rd largest drop in the nation. That cost has not gone away; it’s just been shifted from the state to the individual students, and from there to student loans. If the state pays less per student and the cost stays the same, tuition rises to make up the difference.
That last piece is the most telling. Politicians will say proudly that we’ve lowered taxes – and we have, somewhat. But part of that means parents and students are having to pay a larger share of college costs, because both Uncle Sam and South Carolina are paying less. There is a strong argument that everybody prospers when higher education is financially available to more people. Indeed, the greatest increase in prosperity we have ever seen as a nation followed the GI Bill in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when higher education tuition was almost zero for millions of returning servicemen and (occasionally) women. The government paid those costs, not the students. But in return it was not just those students who prospered from the resulting education boom, everybody did.
We need to get back to that financial model for public higher education, and the sooner the better. As we get closer to next year’s Presidential election, several candidates will talk about their plan to reduce student debt and to provide educational assistance to those who need it the most. Great students from financially poor backgrounds are exactly the people our nation needs the most to be well educated, to lead our communities out of poverty. We all need to listen to those plans, whether or not you or your own family members are potential students. As in so many things, a rising tide lifts all boats – and a rising educational tide even more so, especially in rural counties like Edgefield.
One final note, not directly on the topic above. I’ve heard from many readers over the past 18 months, some who have agreed with the columns I’ve written and some who have not. I appreciate all of you, and that’s why I write these each week! If you would like to comment, whether to agree or to disagree (or you have a better idea), the best way is to use the Edgefield Advertiser’s website: www.edgefieldadvertiser.com . It is very easy to navigate, the columns on this page (not just mine, but everybody’s) are online a few days after the paper comes out, and there is always a “comments” section for you to use (see below). Please jump in, any time. Trust me, we read every comment and try to respond to those that are of the most general interest. Let’s talk about issues, all of us. It’s important!