Education Secretary Arne Duncan has publicly broached the subject of higher education costs. This could be a moment to remember. If done thoughtfully and strategically, it could change the landscape of our country. The skyrocketing debt being incurred by students is no secret. However, those saddled with the debt are only one part of the problem.
There are countless high school students who could/would not even consider such amounts of debt. They may no even know it is an option, albeit a questionable option. Currently the admissions and bursar process for most institutions of higher education are not designed to assist lower income families. Yes, a lot of noise is made about “need blind” admissions, and generous aid packages, but there are loopholes and hurdles. For every college application there is a fee. Most high school seniors are encouraged to apply to an average of six schools. That can be a lot of fee money, yet to receive a waiver a family has to be practically at the national poverty level. $500 or so is a lot of money to a family of four making $42,000. And that’s just the beginning. Visiting colleges to determine the best fit? That costs money. Food, housing, books, fees? Often aid packages do not cover those expenses. Traveling home for holidays and random school breaks? Not all that possible on a limited income. Did you know that when colleges/universities are “closed” for these breaks, their dining plan is often closed as well, leaving students of limited means to fend for themselves? Taken as a whole, these specifics add up to, “you need not apply.” At least to my sensibilities.
Demanding colleges/universities lower tuition is fine. But we could do far more to change things dramatically. The federal government, a major contributor to higher education (in the form of research grants and projects) is in a position to demand changes. I am specifically interested in what could be done to protect the consumer.
There is far too much mystique about the admissions process and higher education in general. It is time to look behind the curtain. I have outlined many considerable cost savings measures in my previous post Educated Consumers. In addition we need to share with high school students the actual dollars and cents of higher education. Not all majors are equal and nor are all degrees. Not all schools are legitimate are worth what they’re charging. Colleges and universities should not be allowed to be anything but transparent. Every cost needs to be listed (in one place!) Every school knows their job placement outcomes and income levels of alumni (of every major) This information needs to be shared with potential students. Truisms such as “we can’t force you to live on campus, we just prefer you do” need to be stated. Let’s eliminate some of the smoke and mirrors. Minors are the consumers of higher education and they need more protection than we are currently offering. The government, for better or worse, is in a position to do just that. Remember, before the F.D.A., snake oil was available on practically every corner.