Here are a couple of horror stories: Last week, National Public Radio interviewed two recent baccalaureate graduates from American universities. One owes $150,000 for student loans. The other, unemployed, owes a staggering $300,000.
Fortunately, few cases are as seemingly hopeless as these are outliers. According to an analysis on the website of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the average student-loan debt after four years of college was more than $23,000 in 2012. But 10 percent of borrowers owed more than $54,000, and about 167,000 former students owed more than $200,000.
According to several sources, total student debt is closing in on a trillion dollars, a figure that, according to motherjones.com, has quadrupled in the last decade and now exceeds total credit card and auto loan debt. Many students are having a hard time paying this money back.
All this debt is connected to the fact that the cost of college has risen much faster than the Consumer Price Index and many other indices. This can be illustrated with numbers. In March 2012, The New York Times' Catherine Rampell noted that tuition and fees at state colleges have risen 559 percent since 1985. Other studies with different parameters show percentages of increase in the quadruple digits.
The high cost of college can be illustrated anecdotally, as well. Someone asked me recently if my parents had paid for my college education, reminding me how much things have changed in the last four decades.
My parents helped out in many ways, but, no, they didn't give me a free ride through college. My dad was a high school educated mail carrier and my mom was a junior high school math teacher. They maintained a modest grip on the middle class, but money wasn't abundant, and they had three more children to think about, as well.
Nevertheless, by means of a combination of summer employment, part-time employment during the semester, the G.I. Bill, and a few Pell grants, I managed to leave the University of Texas at Austin with a graduate degree and absolutely no debt. Zero.
The cost of college just wasn't that big a deal in those days.
Things have changed dramatically for various reasons, but Rampell argues that "the main cause of tuition growth has been huge state funding cuts." When they're squeezed for revenue, state legislators see funding for colleges and universities as "discretionary spending." As they cut off funds, educational institutions have little choice but to pass some of the deficit on to students.
It would be challenging to find a place where the slashing of state funding has been more dramatic than in Texas. Today, tuition and fees for a semester's work at U.T. are around $5,000. Thirty years ago, a semester's graduate enrollment cost me a couple of hundred bucks.
This trend is wrong-headed. College should be cheap for a number of good reasons, some of which are obvious. Few factors support a strong culture and a dynamic economy more than a well-educated citizenry. It's a cliche, but clearly it's still better that 20-year-olds are in college instead of prison.
But the sharp rise in college tuition and fees is connected to an unhealthy psychological shift, as well, a change in how we view ourselves as a society. When state legislators begin to think of education as a "private good," rather than a "public good" -- that is, if you're benefiting from it, you should pay for it -- they undermine the beneficial and democratic leveling effect that easy access to education of all kinds has played in our society.
Of course, the ones pushing higher college costs onto students can, in general, afford to send their own children to college, even at today's outrageous rates. But the average student should be asking herself, "Can I and should I undertake college work?" She shouldn't have to ask, "Can I afford it?"
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.