Here’s a pretty easy, election-year prediction: The White House and Congress will find a way to keep interest rates from climbing on federally backed Stafford loans as they’re set to do this summer.
The idea of leaving a nation of recent grads strapped with beefier interest rates and the prospect of another $1,000, on average, over the life of their loans isn’t going to sit well in November. President Barack Obama seems to get that, as he heads out on a college road trip this week that will touch campuses in three key states in his re-election bid.
Convenient campaigning, sure. Necessary discussion, no matter what.
What’s not as easy is figuring out how to get college costs under control or how Congress can do much about it — at least in a way that will also make sense.
For the past decade or two, perhaps more than any time in U.S. history, young Americans have been schooled to believe that higher education is the only way to go. The days of factory floor jobs custom made for a fresh high school graduate are gone. The best of those jobs requires advanced training that comes with a tuition bill of some sort. Those are the hard facts.
That has put U.S. colleges and universities in an enviable position in the supply and demand equation. With applications up, so are the justifications for the clicking jack of tuition rates.
University presidents in Indiana are quick to note that state funding for their campuses has been flat in recent years. (See Jo Ann Gora’s plea for help last week after Ball State University came limping in near the back of the pack on faculty pay in a new national study.) Fair enough.
What they aren’t so quick to note is that the student fees for in-state students on their campuses have nearly doubled in each of the past two decades.
The blowback against campuses is spotty, though. Other than the occasional Occupy-style protest — such as the one that attempted to take over an Indiana University trustees meeting earlier this month — there is a passive acceptance of higher education fates. What are you going to do, not go to school? That’s often followed by a bit of rationalizing about the worth of a particular university’s brand on a diploma.
That sort of honey, sold in great quantities by universities trying to justify another student fee bump, might make the tuition bill go down a bit easier now. But ask any young graduate about their priorities in a fledgling life after college and it’s more likely to include frets about the student debt long haul above any sort of home-buying or any other such expected luxury from generations past. That brand on the diploma starts looking a bit dimmer.
The reality of interest payments settles in quickly once Grand Prix memories fade and student debt goes from bad to worse. But until universities can keep tuition in check — here’s an idea: try just one year without a tuition increase — America’s college-educated won’t have the foothold they thought they were paying to get.