GP Kidd/Getty Images Every day, there are news stories about the college tuition crisis. But what is the crisis we are seeking to solve? Is it the sta
Education students training
GP Kidd/Getty Images
Every day, there are news stories about the college tuition crisis. But what is the crisis we are seeking to solve? Is it the staggering amount of student debt? The rapidly rising cost of higher education? The interest being collected on student loans? The high default rate on student loans? Or all of the above?
The central problem for many is the accumulated student loan debt. At nearly $1.6 trillion, student loan debt exceeds accumulated car loans and even credit card debt. By almost any definition, this is a crisis: It is certainly a crisis for those with student loan debts whose repayment schedules span decades, with large monthly payments. It is also a crisis for lenders experiencing significant default rates and, perhaps, a crisis for the federal government, as it guarantees these student loans. Many argue that it is also a crisis for our nation’s economy; servicing this debt has a chilling effect on the sale of houses, cars, appliances, and furniture, as well as spending for vacations and luxury items.
But student debt is only one part of a much larger crisis. This debt, regrettably, is on a trajectory to grow much larger in the future. Economists project an accumulated student loan debt of $2 trillion by 2021, and, at a growth rate of 7% a year, as much as $3 trillion or more by the end of the next decade.
The fallout from the student loan crisis goes far beyond the debtors’ finances. In addition to the ordinary financial pressures and obligations that come with young adulthood, studies show that many of those struggling to repay these mountainous student loans are also experiencing serious mental health problems, caused in large part by the crushing weight of these loans.
The history, size, and complexity of the student loan crisis, combined with the interlocking, interdependent higher education networks — universities, lending institutions, and government agencies — defy simplistic reforms and have largely immunized the student loan industry from having to make significant changes. These institutions and agencies have erected a financing superstructure that meets the immediate needs of students and universities for cash, but dramatically fails the test for long-term cost effectiveness and economic sustainability.
The immediate task is to find relief for those former students who sought or were counseled into large, multi-year loans that have now come due. This diverse body of student debtors has individually complex situations that virtually guarantee that there would be no “one size fits all” solution. The current proposal for transferring the totality of this $1.6 trillion debt to the taxpayers does not pass the fairness test, although there are those building a case for a taxpayer bailout, especially in light of the fact that the U.S. government has already bailed out several large lending institutions.
Realistic solutions that recognize the diverse personal situations and economic conditions of the student debtors are possible, however. A good starting point would be a bipartisan Congressional Commission on student loan remediation. A Congressional Commission could identify and propose reasonable, broadly acceptable, long-term strategies that Congress could support and enact. One example is the current debate over allowing companies to contribute to their employees’ student loan payments in a way that is tax-advantaged for the employer and employee.
The larger problem — and the root source of the student loan crisis — is the high cost of attending college and obtaining a degree. With tuition, room, board, books, and mandatory fees all increasing annually, the rising cost of attending college has been exceeding the rate of inflation for decades that, without huge loans, puts a college degree beyond the reach of most families. Parents, politicians, and even patrons of higher education want to know why and, more importantly, what can be done to reduce the cost of college or even slow the rate of annual increases.
The roots of rising college and university costs are not difficult to identify. For the nation’s 1,600-plus public institutions, the chief culprit has been major reductions in state support; public investment in higher education has been in retreat in the states since about 1980, according to the American Council on Education. State funding and subsidies were cut by more than $7 billion between 2008 and 2018. What many call the “privatization of public higher education” has shifted most of the states’ share of instructional costs to students and their families, with disruptive results for both students and institutions.
Other culprits that add to students’ costs in private and public universities are the rapidly increasing number of million-dollar-plus salaries for presidents and many senior administrators. Multi-million dollar salaries for coaches and salaries for assistant coaches that are double and triple the salaries of faculty members are increasingly common and seemingly “acceptable.”
Growth in the size of administration — what some call “administrative bloat”— has also added substantially to the high costs for students. Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, describes university administrations as “too large and redundant.” Duplicative and redundant specialized high-cost degree programs dot campuses across every state. One of many examples is the number of public university law schools. My own state, Ohio, has six public university law schools in addition to three based in private universities. Costly state higher education systems’ offices, many employing several hundred non-academic, non-teaching staff, add substantially to student costs. Some states like Texas and California have several systems offices adding even more to the bottom line for students as well as taxpayers.
Opportunities for reducing costs through greater use of advanced teaching and learning technologies are being quietly and strategically avoided, something I’ve observed over the past few decades as new technologies have become available. Scholarly articles on faculty resistance to on-line teaching can be found in nearly every disciplines’ publications. Likewise, opportunities for cost-cutting collaboration with other institutions are often rejected in favor of campus independence and autonomy. High-cost, non-academic campus amenities such as free movie theaters, climbing walls, swimming pools in residence halls, bowling alleys, hot tubs and more, designed to attract student enrollments, add even more to the price tag, with the costs passed on to students and their families. Mandatory fees for a host of activities and services add significantly to the bottom line even when students haven’t requested, do not want, or do not use these added “benefits.”
We are long overdue for genuine, transformative reform. The good news is that we have the tools in our toolbox; the nation’s higher education system can be reformed. The critical part of solving the problem is knowing where to look for solutions — for far too long, we’ve been looking in all the wrong places. But one thing has become increasingly clear: solutions to the high cost of higher education and the student loan crisis will not come from the higher education establishment. Our colleges and universities, their presidents, boards of trustees, state higher education systems, and the dozen or more higher education associations in Washington, D.C., have serious conflicts of interest on this issue and will not be the source of cost-cutting reforms.
One source for leading a reform movement that we have not seriously considered is the students themselves. Students hold the power to force change in our colleges and universities. In sufficient numbers, students could bring real pressure on the higher education establishment to cut costs, even by simply delaying enrollment for a year or two — a time when these students could work, save, travel, and volunteer. Deprived of student tuition and fee revenues, most institutions would have no choice but to eliminate costly redundant programs, cut administrative costs, and reduce spending across the board. Interestingly, there is some evidence that opting out is beginning to occur. A 2019 study shows that as many as one in five prospective college students are choosing a different path, one based on competency rather than a college degree.
The power to launch much-needed reform in higher education may ultimately rest with students and their families. Several cohorts of high school graduates, delaying their college education for one, two, or three years, would bring cost cutting changes to most colleges and universities.
The nation’s companies could also play a major supporting role in bringing about needed reforms by looking for “competency” in their new employees rather than requiring a college degree. That competency or the capacity to develop that competency fairly rapidly could come from a variety of sources including on-the-job training, military service, apprenticeship programs, continuing education programs, and the internet.
Are there solutions to the student loan crisis? Maybe. But again, the solutions aren’t going to come from the higher education establishment itself. It has too much to lose. But students, supported by the business community, who are willing to take a stand have everything to gain by shaking up the status quo — their freedom, their financial futures, their mental health, and the power to help forge a new path that’s no longer built on the backs of those that higher education seeks to serve.