Indiana

Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Why Bipartisanship On The Student Loan Issue Won't Fix The College Cost Problem

Obama Image: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images / Romney Image: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama and presumptive 2012 election challenger Mitt Romney.

On at least this point, President Barack Obama and his presumptive challenger in the fall election, Mitt Romney, appear to be in agreement: Congress shouldn’t allow interest rates on federal student loans to double this summer.

‘Yay bipartisanship,’ right? Sure, says the Lafayette Journal & Courier‘s editorial board, but action on student loans leaves many unanswered questions about the increasing costs of college:

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.

(You can read the piece in full at Indiana Economic Digest, too.)

The question of whether higher education’s reliance on student loans seems to be part and parcel of the cost issues the J&C op-ed points out.

So are student loans good public policy? Last week, University of Utah higher education policy professor Nick Hillman told StateImpact:

We’ve moved away from a system of grants to one of loans and tax credits. This is a demonstration of our policy values where we want to put more of the responsibility on the individual students, so taking out debt is becoming an expected thing to do.

It might not be a bad thing. Taking out debt to pay for a portion of school might not necessarily be a bad public policy option, it might actually help a lot of people enroll in college. But it’s when that debt burden hits that tipping point where it becomes unmanagable, it becomes burdensome, it becomes inequitable for certain borrowers, then you start to have a problem. That’s what we’re starting to see.

What do you think? How should colleges address the issue of cost? Will the state need to step up funding? Should universities do more to keep students’ costs in check?

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