College tuition fees have increased sharply in the last 35 years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education, the average cost of pursuing a four-year degree at a public college in the 1985-1986 academic year was $3,859. The cost rose to $20,598 in the 2018-2019 academic year. Tuition has risen more than food, housing, medical care services, and perhaps most importantly, more than average hourly wages. What is the cause behind this steady increase? While a comprehensive analysis will require listing many factors, one reason sticks out like a sore thumb.
Government-funded financial aid programs were virtually nonexistent in the early 1970s. This changed with Congress passing the Middle Income Student Assistance Act in 1978 which gave all undergraduate students of all income classes access to subsidized loans as well as middle-class students the ability to apply for Pell grants. As more and more students started to apply for financial aid, colleges started to upcharge on fees and tuition knowing that students have access to government-funded financial aid, a theory now known as the Bennet hypothesis. Basically, the idea was that colleges were confident that they could afford to raise fees and students would take advantage of federal government student financial aid to cover the greater costs. Based on statistics from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York which suggest that every additional dollar of expansion of student loans can cost up to 65 cents in tuition fees, this hypothesis seems to have been vindicated. The rise in federal student loans is complemented with economist Richard Vedder’s claim that “The demand for higher education has risen dramatically since 1985.” The continual desire of students to enroll in college coupled with a government that supplies copious amounts of financial aid leads to a rapid increase in tuition fees with no end in sight.
The costs of college tuition are untenable for many Americans. The evidence for this is the student loan debt crisis: over $1.7 trillion is owed as of the second quarter of 2021. Recent WSJ opinion pieces highlight the plight of students riddled with six-digit figures of debt including this article on graduates of Columbia University’s film program and this article on law graduates of the University of Miami. This crisis has led to morally dubious personal and policy decisions, such as the man who deliberately defaulted on his student loans and the Biden administration’s cancellation of $40 billion of student loans, diffusing the burden of those loans to taxpayers who opted not to invest in college tuition and are therefore arguably not responsible for their costs.
It often seems like personal responsibility is absent from the advice given to young people today. Rather, platitudes like “follow your dreams” or “follow your passion and you will never work a day in your life” dominate self-help advice. Unfortunately, this kind of advice can lead one to adopt attitudes of self-pity and entitlement. It is not hard to see how such dispositions perpetuate a cycle of excessive borrowing, debt, and cancellation that arise from college enrollment as a means to one’s lofty dreams.
In order to mitigate the current problems of high tuition fees and tuition debt, we need to raise children with the value of personal responsibility, the virtue of prudence, and a mind oriented towards discerning one’s vocation with the help of others. The federal government ought to refrain from offering loans to students without legitimate need or merit, but it has no incentive to do so. Therefore, it is imperative that families and local communities explain the long-term crippling effects of student loan debt and interest. Entering college is not the destiny of every high school graduate, it is a personal investment decision. Contrary to what some commentators will say, college is not for everyone. The radical egalitarianism which fuels the push for universal college enrollment fails to take into account that we each have different strengths, weaknesses, and unique callings that may not require going to college. Such an approach is therefore impersonal and unconducive to human flourishing. Instead, we should adopt a realist approach towards college that would entail recognizing its significant investment value but encouraging the next generation to ponder their true reasons for pursuing a college degree, considering alternatives, proceeding to enroll with caution and fiscal responsibility if that is one’s calling, and seeking meaning in friendship, community, and religion rather than narrowly focusing on the meaning derived from one’s college or career.