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The Times
  • Editorial: The cost crisis in higher education

  • The cost of higher education has been going up faster than inflation for 20 years. Student debt now tops $1 trillion, more than Americans’ credit card debt. A Time magazine poll released this week found that 80 percent agreed that at many colleges, the education received isn’t worth the money paid.

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  • The cost of higher education has been going up faster than inflation for 20 years. Student debt now tops $1 trillion, more than Americans’ credit card debt. A Time magazine poll released this week found that 80 percent agreed that at many colleges, the education received isn’t worth the money paid.
    The issue is finally getting the attention it deserves on the campaign trail, but we are far from the clarity needed to make sound public policy decisions.
    What’s driving the rise in the cost of college? Not, as Sen. Scott Brown keeps saying, the salary of his opponent, Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren. Harvard is in a class by itself in terms of sticker price, financial aid and the advantages its degrees bestow on students.
    Eighty percent of the nation’s college students go to public institutions. And they’ve been hit hard: Tuition and fees at public four-year universities more than doubled, even after adjusting for inflation, in the last 20 years. Tuition and fees at two-year colleges grew by 71 percent.
    According to Demos, a New York-based think tank, a year at UMass or a Massachusetts state college averaged $10,786 in tuition and fees in 1990-91. Twenty years later, those costs averaged $17,819.
    While Mitt Romney bragged at the second presidential debate about the John and Abigail Adams Scholarships, a worthy initiative that provides free tuition at state colleges for students who score well on standardized exams, voters outside Massachusetts might not know that "tuition" here refers to the small part of student costs controlled by the state Legislature. A full-time undergrad at Umass Amherst pays $1,714 a year in tuition, but $11,516 in mandatory fees.
    Those fees at UMass went up by $3,200 while Romney was governor – because the Legislature’s contribution to public higher education kept going down. This is the factor too often lost in the debate over the rising cost of higher education.
    According to UMass president Robert Caret, a decade ago the state provided 61 percent of the funding for education programs at UMass; students and their families paid 39 percent. Today, that ratio has been nearly reversed.
    That’s a national trend. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York concluded that tuition increases at public institutions were a direct result of reductions in governmental support.
    There are other reasons costs have gone up. Competition for students has caused colleges to offer sushi in the cafeteria, world-class exercise centers and ever more luxurious dorms. Faculty pay has gone up, especially at top-flight private universities. Most students now take more than four years to achieve a four-year degree, driving up the price tag.
    While some, particularly conservatives, argue that the availability of Pell Grants and government-subsidized loans drives up prices, research is far from conclusive. Even if that’s the case, we know of no evidence that reducing student aid would bring down costs. More likely, it would drive student debt higher, deny educational opportunity to young people and deprive the economy of the highly-skilled workers America needs.
    Page 2 of 2 - Many steps must be taken to address the crisis in higher education costs, including a greater role for community colleges, greater flexibility in degree programs and a redefinition of expectations for the college experience. But depriving students of financial aid and reducing state support for public higher education will only make things worse.
    MetroWest Daily News, Mass.
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