Letter to the editor:
Recently, Harvard announced that all students in the class of 2017 from families with a yearly income of less than $60,000 will pay nothing for their education. Around the same time, the state governments of New Jersey and Oregon announced they would be exploring new income-based tuition repayment plans in an effort to curb ever-rising costs. These developments aren’t as contradictory as they might seem — while college tuition is rising at an unprecedented rate, enrollment as a percentage of the population is also increasing, and Ivy League schools like Harvard continue to expand their endowments. American post-secondary education is beginning to look hierarchical — divided into a handful of prestigious schools and a mass of struggling, largely public ones.
While enrollment will surely continue to increase as more and more jobs require a college degree, I don’t think America’s spiraling tuition costs and burgeoning student debt problem are inevitable. Many states have crippled themselves, slashing their post-secondary education budgets when they are needed most in a misguided attempt at austerity. Universities have also failed to combat an increasing dropout problem and properly educate their students on aid programs and loan forgiveness schemes. It would be foolish to assume the state is fully responsible for or able to correct these problems, but I think the public education system should be empowered to do more about them.
One way for schools to increase both revenue and access would be to adopt differentiated pricing — that is, increase the base rate of tuition but offer more need- and merit-based financial aid. Critics of this model argue that it squeezes out the middle-income students that neither qualify for need-based aid nor have the money to pay their way through college, but I think this is a problem of degree, not of principle. Colleges could expand their aid programs by charging the highest-income students more and likely see little change in enrollment — studies have shown that demand for education among high-income students is unlikely to vary with price.
Another criticism of raising the base rate of tuition is that it creates “sticker shock” for low-income students, who see the high price before aid and are immediately discouraged. Many students who could qualify for financial aid do not even apply. This is hardly irrational — the college aid system can often be complex and confusing, and it’s hard to assess how much one will actually pay. Colleges can advert this by making their aid systems more clear and informing prospective students of their options, including loan forgiveness programs in the event that they do have to depart with dept.
Finally, states could return their higher education spending to previous levels. An increase in state assistance doesn’t necessarily have to mean letting universities off the hook for reducing waste. Standards for funding could help keep universities accountable — President Barack Obama has proposed tying federal Pell Grant money to reducing tuition and improving graduation rates, and states could do something similar. Dropouts are a main source of new student loan debt and a cost burden on universities, so improving graduation rates could help in more ways than one.
None of these is a solutions is a cure-all, and it seems inevitable that colleges will have to deal with new challenges as more and more young adults enter higher education, regardless of policy choices. However, I think that states and the federal government should do whatever is possible to curb out-of-control tuition costs. Education is both a good in itself and an important instrument for economic growth, and it’s in every American’s interest to ensure the system remains sustainable.
Third-year in political science
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