The Cost of a Good Education

Given that I’ve been signing up for loans and getting tuition bills in the mail, it’s no surprise that I’ve been thinking about the cost of education quite a bit lately. And of course, educational costs have been a topic of much discussion in the news and the political arena. I mean, you can identify pretty readily when Mitt Romney lost the 18-29 vote. It was when he blew off student loan concerns with the following advice: borrow money from your parents.

Now, according to American Student Assistance, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, of the 20 million Americans, young and old, who attend college each year, 12 million take out students loans to help finance their educations. And at the moment, American graduates owe somewhere between $900 billion and $1 trillion in student loans, with the average public university grad owing roughly $8000 and the average private university grad owing about $17,000. (Mind you, that’s the median average, meaning half of borrowers owe more and half earn less than that number.)

The common wisdom is not to borrow more than 1/3 of your expected salary. But at a time when employment is most uncertain for recent college grads, what is that expected salary supposed to be? And what if your dream job requires more than a Bachelors degree? What if you have to add thousands of dollars more for graduate or professional school? Again, the argument used to be that it’s alright for prospective doctors, lawyers, and business execs to borrow massive amounts of money for their educations — after all, they’re expected to make lots of money. But that isn’t guaranteed anymore either.

Now, I’ve been very lucky. I got seriously decent scholarship money from my undergraduate institution, and my parents had saved some, too. Between the two, I could afford a solid private liberal arts education without incurring any debt. And I paid for my MFA with a graduate assistantship, while living cheaply off a stipend. For the first time I will be borrowing some money for my continuing education, but it’s not enough to break the bank or make me very nervous. So I’m not complaining. I know I’m lucky — but it’s not like I had everything handed to me either. I did my part, too, by working hard, getting good grades, and choosing schools that would help me financially.

What I’m saying is: shouldn’t my circumstances be the norm? Shouldn’t everyone be able to afford a state education at the very least? And not that there’s anything wrong with state-funded education — but if a student would benefit more from a small, liberal arts education, shouldn’t they be able to afford that, too? We sell the idea, as a culture, that if you work hard, you can achieve your dreams, go to your first choice university, and pursue your career. But we espouse those ideas in a country where higher education is a privilege, not a right;  where even our public education system doesn’t get the time, attention, or funding it needs to thrive; and where our politicians can sneer at academia to gain political currency. And I think it means we’re sending  a different message to our young people, that a college degree is a luxury, and isn’t worth the time and expense they’ll need to invest in it. I mean, if we don’t care, why should they?

I’m not on a rant here. And I don’t have the answers. But I am baffled. And troubled.

What do you think about the cost of higher education? Do you have student loans? How do you feel about them?

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