Colleges, or Country Clubs?
December 1, 2011
As student debt increases, costs rise for everything but actual education
Anna Petkovich SC ‘14 estimates that she will be approximately $50,000 in debt at the end of her four years at the Claremont Colleges. Without her CalGrant, that figure would be closer to $90,000.
“I’m still just a child,” she says. “That’s just a number on a piece of paper to me. How am I supposed to know what that kind of money means?”
Over the past thirty years, the cost of at- tending college has risen steadily at a rate of about six percent each year. College tuition costs have outpaced inflation and health care spending, even in periods of recession. The Claremont Colleges are no exception, ranking as some of the most expensive schools in the country. But as student debt grows, the money that many colleges spend on administration has risen faster than the amount that goes directly to education, and colleges – including the Claremonts – continue to spend money on unnecessary amenities.
In October, college loan debt reached $1 trillion, surpassing America’s credit card debt. College debt is one of the major grievances for participants in the Occupy protests launched in September, as many of the occupiers are out-of-luck college graduates drowning in debt. Students are so serious about challenging current student loan trends that they have pushed the federal government to step in. President Obama recently signed an executive order to cap required payments for some college loan borrowers at a lower percentage of their income; and Congress passed legislation to forgive payments for many after 20 years, or ten years for those who enter public service.
Scripps Assistant Professor of Economics Sean Flynn thinks that the increasing costs are a result of simple economics. “What I think happened is the actual costs of delivering education – the real costs like time of teachers in the classroom and renting square footage of space – really haven’t gone up that much over time. What has really gone up is the demand,” Flynn explains. A college education has become increasingly important for success, so more people are demanding seats in the nation’s classrooms.
This extreme demand creates a system in which colleges have zero incentive to de- crease costs to students. Last year, Scripps underwent an extensive “Economic Sustainability Project” to try to decrease the costs of running the college. President Lori Bettison-Varga approved about $185,000 in savings. This may sound significant, but compared to Scripps’ overall budget of $52 million, it is pocket change, culminating in a total reduction of 0.35 percent of the budget. With budget measures like “eliminating fruit juices from lunch and dinner” and “combin[ing] the annual donor honor roll publication with the fall issue of Scripps Magazine,” actually reducing the overall budget by a serious amount is clearly not a priority.
Investing in expensive perks like fruit juices, fancy gyms, and photogenic architecture (Kravis Center, anyone?) rewards colleges with interested students. We all remember opening up Fiske Guide to Colleges and trying to weed down the hundreds of schools to a list of a ten or so that stood out. And, when you’re a seven- teen year old about to live on your own for the first time, maid service is appealing.
Additionally, Flynn thinks that the competition engendered by the extra high demand for a college education creates an incentive to inundate a campus with what he calls “massive layers of bureaucracy.”
“The scariest number I’ve seen is that in the Cal State system between 1970 and 2008…the number of faculty only went up three percent, but the number of administrators went up 237 percent,” Flynn explains. “The entire educational system has had massive amounts of money thrown at it and most of it has gone to things that have not improved the actual educational outcomes.”
While more bureaucracy could perhaps improve the quality of life for students at an institution, it carries a high price tag. Luckily, America is full of students with enough desire to do five hours of homework a night that they will pick up extra costs by taking out a loan or a second mortgage on their family’s home. The fancy extras give any school a competitive edge. But while bells and whistles are certainly nice, they are by no means necessary for an education. CMC students got by just fine before the $75 million Kravis Center and Scripps students were by no means living poorly before the installment of the state-of-the-art fitness center.
In September 2010, President Obama criticized colleges for this phenomenon, saying, “You’re not going to a university to join a spa – you’re going there to learn so that you can have a fulfilling career. And if all the amenities of a public university start jacking up the cost of tuition significantly, that’s a problem.” President Obama, it’s a problem at private liberal arts colleges, too.
The high-cost system has created an environment in which high levels of loans and debt are the norm. This debt brings with it two problems: First, it traps those most interested in improving their standard of living and working hard with mountains of debt. Being tied to a loan that must be repaid makes it hard for students to take jobs at non-profit organizations or go to graduate school. Instead, students are locked into unfulfilling jobs that help to pay the bills, if they can find a job at all. Petkovich, for example, believes that debt will force her into the “real world” prematurely. With $50,000 of debt weighing you down, she ex- plained, getting a “serious” job right out of college becomes incredibly important.
Second, because student loans are implicitly required to for many middle class students to attend expensive schools, students from backgrounds or cultures that admonish debt are less likely to attend the most expensive — and sometimes best – schools. “The debt is definitely discouraging a lot of people from goin to college,” explains Flynn. “People in society – even if they know nothing else about college – now think of it as hideously expensive. That’s got to discourage kids [who are considering college].”
But if the student loan crisis isn’t affecting you, why should you care? As the cost of college rises and more and more students from middle class, poor, and minority back- grounds choose not to attend elite and expensive universities, we lose out on an important part of a liberal arts education. Class diversity decreases with the rising costs of college, and students sacrifice a variety of opinions and worldviews in the classroom that can provide invaluable perspectives on class material. As we allow costs to rise and take out loans to support the extravagant luxury resorts we call schools, we simultaneously exclude huge portions of the United States from participating in our discussions, from living in our dorms, and from reaping the benefits of education.
Students at the Claremont Colleges already attend some of the most expensive schools in the nation. The phenomenon of high college costs carries implications for everyone on campus. We have seen student fees, tuition, and housing costs rise. We watch as ad- ministrations pay for lavish new conference rooms, Jetsons-style glass cubes, and gym equipment while we take out more loans and pay more out of pocket to fund the impossible race to the top. We’ve reached the point where school is no longer about education; it’s about a lifestyle. And with that four-year lifestyle locking us into unfulfilling jobs and years of paying off loans, how much longer are we willing to pay for it?