(MintPress) – For years, students have seen tuition rates skyrocket, leading to a diploma weighed down with tens — and sometimes hundreds — of thousands of dollars in debt. The question now on the minds of those saving up for their childrens’ education is: When will it stop, and how extreme will the nation allow it to get before demanding government intervention?
Between 2000 and 2010, the cost of tuition, including room and board, at a public institution rose 42 percent, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. The same calculation applied to a private school shows an increase of 31 percent in the 10-year span — and there’s no indication, at this point, that the trend will halt.
In March 2012, student loan debt surpassed credit card debt, accounting for $870 billion — that’s compared to the nation’s collective $693 billion credit card debt.
The rising costs of tuition have come at a time when colleges are dealing with budget cuts. Looking for a way to make up the difference, students have begun to carry the burden of the nation’s fiscal crisis. In 2011, the average student loan debt among graduates was $25,000 — a 5 percent increase from 2009.
Despite the growing economic burden of college, more than 68 percent of students in 2011 who graduated from high school attend at least some type of post-secondary educational facility, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education called the tuition hike/budget cut scenario “the worst fiscal news for public higher education institutions and their students in at least a decade.”
A proposal for change, resistance to government involvement
President Barack Obama addressed the issue late in 2012, when he proposed a plan that would tie federal funding to the rate at which colleges increase tuition. While not a cap on tuition, his plan provided the incentives to steer post-secondary educational facilities in the right direction.
“Of course, it’s not enough for us to increase student aid … States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down,” Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union address.
The Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant Program, the Perkins Loan Program and the Work Study Program — all federal initiatives — are the sources of funding Obama proposed to make conditional upon the tuition increases of individual schools.
One year later, the details of Obama’s proposed plan are still being discussed. Final details, which will then be presented for Congressional approval, are expected to be laid out by the end of February. Despite the year given to smooth over the details and sell Congressional leaders on the proposal, there’s still widespread resistance, particularly on behalf of colleges.
The tuition hikes have repeatedly been justified by post-secondary learning institutions as a necessary hike to make up for state budget cuts. For leaders of colleges around the country, however, it’s seen as a form of punishment for those already in a pinch.
“The answer is not going to come from more federal controls on colleges or states, or by telling families to judge the value of an education by the amount of young graduates earn in the first few years after they graduate,” David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities told the New York Times in 2012.
Some Congressional leaders, particularly Republicans, opposed the plan, arguing the government should stay out of the business of managing colleges.
“The president is saying that people can’t afford to go to college anymore, and that just simply is not true,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina who also serves as chairwoman of the House of Higher Education subcommittee. “Tuition is too high at most schools, but it isn’t the job of the federal government to punish these schools. It’s very arbitrary, and the president sounds like a dictator.”
Arguments against the plan, however, fail to address the issue facing students now and in the future.
Reforming law school cost in New York
Not holding their breath for Congress to handle issues associated with rising tuition, leaders of the New York bar are gathering to discuss ways in which they can help keep tuition down for incoming law students. The cost of law school now, on average, is $40,000 a year — an increase of 4 percent from the year prior.
It’s a cost students are beginning to question as graduates find it more difficult to find employment after law school.
According to Karen Sloan of the National Law Journal, the number of applicants to law school over the last two years has declined by 25 percent. And while fewer people are choosing the world of law as a career, the costs keep increasing, alongside the rest of college degrees throughout the nation. This presents a problem for law schools.
“It’s Supply and Demand 101: When demand for a product drops, prices fall to lure back buyers. But this fundamental law of economics doesn’t apply to law schools,” Sloan writes. “The number of applicants to U.S. law school declined drastically during the past two years, yet the average tuition this fall will climb by more than double the rate of inflation.”
One proposal for cost reduction to law students would allow law school students to take the bar two years into law school, rather than three — a move that could drive down costs by a third, according to a paper put forward by New York University’s law department.
“This rule change would address in part the concern that the burden of law school debt drives young lawyers to bypass lower-paying public service opportunities in favor of private legal employment,” the paper argues. “Moreover, such a move would increase the pressure on law schools to deliver educational services to third-year students that enhance their ability to make an immediate contribution as practicing lawyers upon graduation.”
In order for such a proposal to go through, an amendment to the state’s Court of Appeals would have to be approved — a move law school advocates say would help clear the way for students, who now cannot afford it, to have a shot at law school.
Northwestern Law School Dean Daniel Rodriguez and NYU Law School Professor Samuel Estreicher co-authored an Op-Ed in the New York Times Jan. 17, arguing that the move would achieve the goal of not only keeping costs low, but decreasing costs for students seeking law school entrance.
Their ideas have been subject to criticism by some who argue that it will create two categories of lawyers — those who take the bar after two years, and those who wait until the third, with the latter being more preferred. They, however, disagree. And either way one looks at it, they’re proposing change that would ultimately achieve what most involved in post-secondary education are seeking: lower costs and more opportunities.
The question now for the wider college community is what will be done to manage tuition costs in a growing economic climate in which degrees are necessary. College enrollment rates aren’t going down, so the incentive for change seen in the law school atmosphere is not there.
If Congress goes another year without implementing a system to drive down tuition costs, costs will increase — and students will continue to pay, graduating into the “real world” with more debt than ever, and arguably affecting the economy through a burdensome life of debt that spans decades into their working careers.
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