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Why is college so damned expensive?

United States

The price of a year's tuition, housing and fees at a private university may rise to $88,000 a year. John Walker under a Creative Commons Licence

Mark Engler, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, is currently writing a book about the evolution of political nonviolence. He can be reached via the website DemocracyUprising.com

I have a two-year-old daughter.

Given that she hasn’t yet made it into pull-up underpants, it seems strange to think about her higher education. But, with a student debt crisis now exploding in the United States, it’s hardly too early to be concerned.

Assuming that my daughter sails through school, it will be a mere 16 years before she’s ready for university. (Based on her current proficiency singing ‘Where Is Thumbkin?’ I am confident that she will be pursuing an advanced degree.)

If the cost of college in the US continues to grow at its current rate, the price of tuition, housing and fees at a four-year private university at that point will run to about $88,000 per year.

The annual cost at a public university would remain lower: a projected $46,000. However, the cost of tuition is increasing even faster at state schools than private ones.

On the plus side, there’s inflation. I’ve gotten used to paying more than the $6 that I shelled out for a movie in 1998. So maybe a four-year price tag of a few hundred thousand dollars will be no sweat in the 2030s?

Somehow I doubt it. Between 1980 and 2010, college costs went up three times faster than the Consumer Price Index. They even increased twice as fast as the cost of medical care. In the US – where Big Insurance writes healthcare law – that’s saying something.

With a grim job market and debts averaging $29,000, new graduates face the prospect of long-term indenture to the banks.

If a typical web user in the US goes to Google and starts typing ‘Why is co…’ the site’s auto-fill function will do the rest, enquiring why college is so damned expensive. Google’s second most popular auto-fill option is, ‘Why is coffee called Joe?’ followed by ‘Why is communism bad?’

I’m not sure about the coffee, but I think there might be a connection between the first question and the third.

One economist in the Wall Street Journal recently remarked, ‘[W]e have crossed a key line from “higher education as subsidized public good” to “higher education as a competitive market good”.’ While he regretted this shift, many of the paper’s readers would applaud it –and that’s precisely the problem.

There are multiple reasons for the increasing costs of US education: expanding campuses, construction of new labs and facilities, and the bloated number of administrators now presiding over the system.

But the main culprit is austerity. Ceaseless rounds of state-level budget cuts since the late 1980s have driven up prices at public universities astronomically. Status-conscious private universities jumped in with their own tuition increases, perpetuating the upward spiral.

This model of higher education is also drawing fire abroad. Already it has taken massive protests in many places to defend the ideal of free or low-cost higher education – Quebec’s 2012 ‘Maple Spring’ being one heroic example.

The idea that the trend could be reversed, and the norm of free universities imported into the United States, seems unimaginable. And yet, activists have calculated that the amount of money this country has spent so far on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be sufficient to cover the cost of free higher education for more than five decades.

Jubilee USA, the local branch of the international movement against debt, has traditionally focused on the Global South – arguing that the IMF, World Bank and US Treasury should cancel unjust debts accumulated through usurious loans and spending by past dictators.

In recent years, however, it has also called for a Jubilee for Students, contending that ‘in these times we must make connections between unjust loans that hurt our local and global communities’.

The group’s shift has emphasized an important point: we can no longer see this as a foreign issue. Rather, debt servitude is a problem that affects us all – even if we’re still in diapers.

Mark Engler, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, is currently writing a book about the evolution of political nonviolence. He can be reached via the website DemocracyUprising.com

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