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Column: Our college debt problem

Posted at 6:00 AM, Aug 22, 2015
and last updated 2016-03-09 17:51:30-05

David Holthaus is WCPO.com's managing editor of opinion and engagement.

College campuses this week were buzzing with young adults packing TVs, laptops, and refrigerators as they moved in to start the school year. Let’s hope they were packing a good credit rating, too.

Before the first day of classes starts, students and parents must navigate the highwire world of college financing. It can be daunting, and worse, might be putting college out of reach for some.

The college-cost equation is pretty simple, but depressing. The price of college has been rising fast, much faster than inflation, for more than two decades. At the same time, the states, including Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, have been cutting back on how much they support their public universities.

The result: the burden of paying for an ever more expensive college education has been shifted onto the backs of students and their families, many of whom are going deep into debt to afford it.

 

My story is a good example. I was privileged to attend a small, private, liberal arts college. Even as a freshman, I had access to full professors who were focused on teaching in small classes. When I graduated in 1980, tuition, fees and room and board amounted to about $7,000 a year.

Today, that same college costs $60,000 a year.

Back in 1980, $7,000 a year seemed expensive, but my parents were able to swing it, with some help from my summer-job savings, without going into debt. And they were able to give me the gift of being the first in my family to go to college. It made a big difference in my life and career.

But a $60,000-a-year education simply wouldn’t be affordable today on my dad’s working-class income, even if it was adjusted for inflation.

My 18-year-old son just moved into the University of Cincinnati, where tuition, room and board comes to about $23,000. That adds up to more than $90,000 that will be spent on a college education (assuming he graduates in four years). It’ll be paid with a combination of savings, scholarships, grants, on-campus work, and student loans.

I was able to attend an expensive, private college and graduate debt-free. A generation later, he expects he'll owe about $17,000 by the time he graduates.

And he’ll be getting off light compared to many of his peers. The average debt of UC graduates (in 2013) was more than $28,000, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. More than two-thirds of UC’s main campus students graduate with student loan debt.

At Northern Kentucky University, 72 percent of its graduates leave college in debt; the average is $25,000.

 

It’s a problem that’s been growing for a generation, as WCPO.com’s Bob Driehaus and Mark Nichols detailed in their well-researched story earlier this year.

 

Despite the general belief that a college education is the gateway to the middle class and to higher earnings, our state legislators have been cutting funding to higher education for more than 20 years.

Kentucky lawmakers cut higher education funding another 2.3 percent this year.

Ohio’s legislators took a step in the right direction, when they approved higher ed increases of 4.5 percent for 2016 and 4 percent for 2017. Ohio’s legislature also froze tuition at state schools like UC, Miami and Ohio State.

Those are both good moves, but they’re just a start.

If college is to continue to be a path to a better life, especially for low- and lower-middle class families, state legislators should make funding for state colleges a higher, long-term priority.

And college administrators and their board members should prioritize cost control and financial aid so the wealth of resources on their campuses can be made available to more people.

The next generation will thank them.