What You May Have Missed
By Amy Choate-Nielsen, Deseret News National Edition
Published: Monday, March 18 2013 8:40 p.m. MDT
As the amount of student debt in America has grown to nearly $1 trillion and the average cost of college tuition has dramatically increased, some experts say that the model of higher education is reaching a critical level.
This story is part of the Deseret News National Edition, which focuses on the issues that resonate with American families.
Questions to ask when considering a college:
How many students graduate from this college?
How much debt am I going to walk out with?
How many people before me paid back their debt?
“I would hope that 10 years from now I can look back and say that was a great decision and I’m glad I went to school because it worked out, but I don't really believe that it will happen soon.”
And yet, as learning is going down, prices are going up. Between 2001 and 2010, the estimated cost to attend a four-year public university jumped from $8,653 to $15,918, including room and board, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. During the same period of time, the cost of attending a private not-for-profit four-year institution increased 31 percent, after adjustment for inflation. These are the things that Lindsay and other higher education experts say need to change in order for students to survive going to college.
"Universities have spent so much time and so much money over the last 30 years doing things other than educating students," Lindsay says from his office in Texas. "The result is education is much more expensive and there is much less focus on teaching students."
In order to cut the cost of tuition, universities would need to get creative and adopt a new model, experts say. Schools could offer testing for certification when students are ready, rather than requiring a set number of hours of class time. They could develop more of a working relationship with local high schools and community colleges to establish course credit that counts in college.
They could expand their online interaction, increase the hours professors teach and decrease the number of administrators. They could streamline the number of majors they offer, use their buildings seven days a week, year-round and stop subsidizing sports, says Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
But that's something colleges don't have much incentive to do.
Experts argue that a lack of competition between existing universities and would-be universities filtered out through the accreditation process cuts down on the motivation to lower prices. And there is even some evidence that colleges that raise their prices do better because people equate price with quality, says Andrew Kelly, a research fellow in education policies at the American Enterprise Institute.
"What most of the elite (universities) have in common is they charge a lot of money," Kelly says. "You have a system when you have an expensive product to provide, and when revenue from one source drops, you have a few options. Reduce the cost of providing it or raise the price charged to consumers, and as long as they keep coming in to fill the seats I won't worry about it."
Worth the sacrifice
Andrew and Sutton Jensen worry plenty about how much they're paying to fill a seat in their respective universities. But rather than leave their monetary fate up to the school, they've taken matters into their own hands.
They chose to attend schools that were close to family so they could score free housing — in a basement. They share one modest car that they paid off before starting their second degrees. And they have no debt from their undergraduate education.
They watch with some longing as their fellow students get their own places to live, take vacations and start to have children. But they know those students owe double or triple the amount that they do, so the Jensens hold back.
When Andrew Jensen finishes school this spring with a master's degree in public policy from American University and his wife finishes her accelerated second bachelor's degree in nursing from Georgetown University, they will owe less than $50,000 between the two of them.
"It's been hard at times, because sometimes when you're 'sacrificing,' so to speak, you just wonder to yourself, 'When will I start paying this off? When will this be done and out of the way?’ ” Andrew Jensen said this winter from his in-laws' house in Virginia.
Students are increasingly borrowing money to pay for college. In 2007-08, approximately 49 percent of full-time undergraduates at public four-year institutions received federal loans, compared with 61 percent of students at private, not-for-profit four-year universities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. It's ironic, but experts say the loans students use to pay for school could be part of the problem that is making college more expensive, thus students have an equal role in altering how universities function.
DeseretNews.com encourages a civil dialogue among its readers. We welcome your thoughtful comments.
— About comments