The College Tuition Bubble Burst?

Perhaps you read the article over at CNBC entitled “The Scary Amount That College Will Cost In the Future.”  It addresses the rising cost of college and the projected cost eighteen years down the line.  According to Wealthfront, the article says that the average cost of most public universities is currently $101,000.  This is consistent with the price of my community’s local college, Illinois State University.  Obviously, that’s a very large amount of money.  However, Wealthfront projects that by the year 2036, public universities will cost an average of $184,000.  As a parent of two children under ten years of age, that number induces paralysis.

Because I teach seniors in high school, we always take a few days and explore the options available upon graduating.  I ask them to review their financial situation and then to investigate the cost of the junior college and the university.  I next ask them to research the projected earnings associated with the kind of career their degree will procure.  We also discuss the pros and cons of entering the work force directly upon graduation.  I’ve done this twice a year every year since 2010.

The cost of a four-year university astounds them … every time.  For some, they immediately give upon on the idea.  They don’t want to take on the debt.  Honestly, I can’t say I blame them.

I believe we have both an ideological problem as well as a practical one.  A typical public university should not cost two or three times as much as a staring salary of its graduates.  It simply shouldn’t.

Once upon a time, a college degree guaranteed employment.  It proved a valid investment that would assuredly pay you back a hundred times over throughout the course of a career.  Undergraduate degrees are now the norm, however.  Most careers require an undergraduate degree for even an entry-level position.  Unfortunately, salaries do not seem to be keeping pace with the rising cost of tuition.  As a result, we have college degrees that are not only taking far too long to pay the graduate back, but also, in many cases, failing to do so at all.

Frankly, I’ve felt confident that the tuition bubble would burst.  I believed, as I’ve witnessed with my students, that the cost would prohibit the demand.  People would simply stop going to college.  My logic dictated that tuition would consequently decrease.

According to these projections, though, my thinking is not only flawed, but flat-out wrong.

Practically speaking, this can’t be good for our nation.  I’m not an economics expert, but it seems clear to me that a country full of people in debt due to tuition costs that outpace most average salary schedules puts an undue burden on the populace.  People in debt can’t spend money.  An economy has a hard time functioning well without money flowing.  The college degree is meant to empower the individual and actually afford them the ability to make more money and thus spend more money.  The inverse seems to be occurring.

Ideologically speaking, I take tremendous issue with the trend.  I believe in education.  I wholeheartedly believe in the power of learning and bettering oneself.  I also believe everyone has the right to an affordable education.  What happens to our nation when the average person can’t afford college anymore?  How many doctors, teachers, and other vital roles are we going to lose due to college costing more than most people can pay?  Are even public universities only going to be possible for the affluent?

I’m not saying college should be free.  I don’t mind paying for my daughters’ higher education.  However, I also don’t think it’s right that families have to pinch every penny for over a decade if they hope to send their child to college for a degree that likely will not pay them back anytime soon.  It seems as though Americans are being taken advantage of by the tuition system.  We tell children they need to go to college if they want a good job, if they want to make their families proud, and so young adults do whatever it takes to go to college — even if it means taking on decades of debt.  We are made to fear the idea of not going to college, and so, as a result, tuition keeps going up and up even as salary increases stagnate.  It doesn’t seem fair, does it?

Though it doesn’t appear that the tuition bubble is going to burst anytime soon, believe me when I say that  I’ve seen the hopes and dreams of many students burst these last several years.

It is my sincere hope that we can find a balance between the undeniable value of education and the appropriate amount of tuition fees.