Before getting into student loans and the cost of higher education, I would like to disclose what – in my opinion – are the three keys to a good life. The first key is faith – “In God We Trust” – right? The second key is making good choices – choosing our friends, our spouse, our values and goals wisely, and doing the right thing. The third key is education, education, education.
One of the things that has made America great is our public education system. We have (or had?) the best education system in the world – recent studies show that the U.S. is lagging behind some other developed countries in mathematics and the sciences. The American education system has been a major factor in the upward mobility of our citizens. However, in 1990, the U.S. ranked first in the world in four-year college degrees; today, the U.S. ranks 12th.
Each of us has God-given talents we should develop and use, both for ourselves and for the benefit of others. One of the tools for us to become all we can be is a college education. College education should be available for all those who apply themselves, desire it and can afford it. Most of us can apply ourselves – attend primary and secondary school (90% of success is showing up), be disciplined, pay attention in class, do homework and get good test results. Many of us want to learn – about ourselves, our country, its principles and system of government, and the facts about the natural world and the vast universe of which we are a small part.
The third requirement for getting a good education, its affordability, has become very difficult for many Americans. This is because of rising costs and declining state government support for colleges and universities. Why are college costs rising faster than the overall rate of inflation? Building construction (especially for athletic facilities), salaries and benefits for administrators, faculty, coaches, fundraisers, recruitment staff, as well as textbooks and technology, have driven up costs.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, students in 40 countries around the world pay nothing for tuition at public colleges and universities. Tuition and fees at both public and private American colleges are among the highest in the world. The average cost for tuition and fees at public colleges in the U.S. is $8,202 per year; the average tuition and fees at private U.S. colleges is $21,189 per year.
The interest rate on student loans in the U.S. ranges from 3.5% to about 10.5%. In 2018, the average student loan debt was about $35,000; some college students – about 15% – graduate with a debt of $50,000 or more. Two-thirds of American college students graduate with college debt, and the total student loan debt nationwide now tops $1.2 trillion, with 7 million borrowers in default.
Student loan debt is one of the leading causes of bankruptcy in the United States. Other causes include medical expenses, credit card debt, divorce and job loss. Nobody in America should go bankrupt because of medical expenses or higher education costs.
America suffers from what some have called “a college attainment gap.” High school graduates from the wealthiest families in our nation usually go to college. But only half of high school graduates in the poorest quarter of the population go to college. If we believe in equality of opportunity, as we say we do, then higher education should be available to all, not just the rich.
We can do better. First, instead of cutting taxes, state legislatures should increase financial support for public colleges and universities. Second, university boards of trustees must make a serious effort to control costs at their institutions, especially spending on sports programs.
Third, Congress should create a national Public Service Corps. Under this program, a person who agrees to serve one year in the Public Service Corps would get two years of college paid for by the U.S. government; public service for two years would result in four years of college paid by the U.S. government. Service could be in the U.S. armed forces, Head Start, the Peace Corps, Americorps, public schools, health departments, police and fire departments or a public defender's office. This plan would encourage young men and women to serve our country and, in return, receive a college education.
What could be better than that?