Editorial: Small steps toward managing rising college costs

Last modified: Monday, January 27, 2014

The cost of attending college is out of control, so we are glad to see the issue being addressed by local higher-ed chiefs and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, even if their proposals treat the symptoms and not the illness.

This month, the presidents of Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges attended a White House summit on onerous higher education costs. President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan took part in the event, which sought to showcase efforts by colleges to make their programs more affordable.

Meanwhile, during a visit to the University of Massachusetts Amherst last week, Warren promised to introduce legislation that would refinance $1.2 trillion in student loan debt.

The future of the American economy relies on an educated and innovative workforce. By 2020 — in six years — 65 percent of all job vacancies in the U.S. will require some form of post-secondary education, according to a new Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce report. And according to Warren, the country will be 5 million people short of this without changes to higher ed finance.

The high cost is keeping students away. While 78 percent of high school graduates from high-income families enrolled in college, the shares for middle- and low-income families were 63 percent and 55 percent, according to the White House Task Force on Middle Class Families.

Nationally, the average cost of tuition, fees and room and board at a four-year public college has risen by 65 percent since 2000; it has risen by 40 percent at private four-year colleges. Put that alongside the fact that real household income has fallen 8.3 percent since 2007 and you’ve got a real problem.

While institutions of higher education have dramatically increased aid to students, it’s not enough to save graduates from what can be crushing debt. Seven in 10 seniors who graduated last year carried student loan debt, with an average of $29,400 per borrower, according to The Project on Student Debt. Warren said the interest payments on student debt will account for $185 billon in profit for the federal government over the next 10 years.

Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges spend tens of millions of dollars on student financial aid every year. At the summit, the presidents pledged to do even more.

Amherst, which already runs a no-debt financial aid system, pledged to recruit and graduate larger numbers of Native American students through a new summer program in partnership with College Horizons, a nonprofit. The college will also launch outreach efforts to middle and high schools in the region to “create a pipeline” to college for more low-income and disadvantaged students.

Mount Holyoke announced it will give full tuition to all new Frances Perkins scholars, a program for women 25 or older that enrolls about 25 to 30 students annually. The college will also expand recruitment of low-income students in western Massachusetts through visits by Mount Holyoke students and faculty to K-12 schools in the region.

Smith College will give full tuition to 10 low-income students annually drawn from high schools in New York City interested in science, technology, engineering and math. The scholarship program is modeled on a successful effort by Smith’s biology and chemistry departments to recruit more low-income students to be majors in those fields.

While we applaud these moves and the goal of Warren’s legislation, they do not address the root causes of the skyrocketing cost of higher education, which experts list as: reduced state aid for public institutions; growing campus support staffs; increased services for students unprepared for the rigor of college courses; the pressure on colleges to attract the best and brightest with better labs, better residence halls, finer equipment, etc.; and the growing demand for a college education.

Investment in education, from kindergarten through college, is imperative to improve our economy and society. But we can’t ask 18-year-olds and families subsisting on stagnant wages to make the bulk of that investment without creating the problems we see today: overwhelming costs and the threat of debilitating debt that discourage future leaders and innovators from achieving their potentials.


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