Paying the Price

(I wrote this back in January after reading the article linked below. These were the thoughts bouncing around in my head, and for some reason I never got around to publishing this entry. Looking at the costs of higher education and how those compare and are managed in different countries around the world is a topic I find very interesting. The cost of higher education in the US is of particular interest to me, in that I find it both worrisome and fascinating how quickly it has escalated in recent years. It’s an issue that may very well play a role in our personal lives in the years to come as it may prove a hinderance to our desire to move to the US with children.)

The cost of higher education in the US is out of control and quite frankly, scary. And the even scarier thing? This story above is in no way unique.

I, myself, could have easily gone $80,000 in debt from a master’s degree alone had I chosen to study at a university in New York City that accepted me as a grad student. Thankfully, common sense took over when I took at hard look at what the degree would cost vs. what I could expect to make in the field of higher education, and I chose to study elsewhere. But making financially crippling decisions in the US is fairly easy to do when you combine education (which is always a good investment, right?) with exorbitant fees.

This excerpt from an editorial in the 26th of October’s Washington Post sums the problem up succinctly: “Since 1985, college costs have risen more than 450 percent, which is about 4.5 times the rate of inflation. There is no justification for higher-education costs to have soared so dramatically. Faculty salaries have increased in most cases, but at only about a 10th of the rate of overall growth. Colleges and universities cite a variety of other factors, such as higher administrative costs and overhead, but these claims are unconvincing. The real reason schools charge more is because they can get away with it.”

And students and their parents will get the loans to pay for it.

By comparison, most of Germany’s higher education institutions charge little or no tuition. This is a difficult concept to grasp for my American friends. The first thing many of them say to me is “When are you going to do a PhD?” It’s not a question of whether it makes sense to take on that challenge or even whether I want to or not; no, the only thing that matters from an American perspective is that I can do it for free or almost free, and therefore I’d be crazy not to. When one reads a story like the above, it becomes pretty obvious why this type of thinking prevails.

Of course, the money to fund the universities in Germany has to come from somewhere, and if it’s not coming from the students, then where? Well, that’s where good ‘ol socialism comes in to save the day. Instead of crippling those who want an education with overwhelming debt, all Germans pay for it through their taxes. I know many Americans would scoff at that idea of paying higher taxes to more fully fund the higher education system, but there are childless couples who already have to pay for local schools through their property taxes. And why this? Because we all recognize that it’s today’s children who will be caring for us tomorrow. And those children need education.

A bachelor’s degree has become the next necessary step in a young person’s education in the US to have any sort of hope at landing a professional job, with increasingly the expectation that a master’s degree will eventually follow. But unfortunately this means debt piled onto more debt for most students. Those of my friends who studied in the hard sciences have fared better professionally, but for those of us in the humanities, most of us didn’t end up working in particularly lucrative fields. Many of us have struggled to find jobs that pay what could be considered a good wage, let alone a great one. And we did everything “right” : we attended a well-reputed private liberal arts university that practically guaranteed (or at least one would get that impression from listening to their marketing spiels, anyway) we’d have doors opened for us and professional success would follow simply because we had a degree from their institution. Many of us are in agreement that although we felt we received a very good education, having that degree didn’t necessarily guarantee doors flung open and a fat paycheck. And, unless you were among the lucky, it did mean a heap of debt.

The German higher education system isn’t perfect, and in the past, the Mr. said there was great waste. He knew career students during his undergraduate years that paid no money at all to study, wouldn’t show up for exams or do any work, but could remain a student for as long as he or she desired. And they received all the benefits a student receives, like student insurance, reduced-price student bus tickets, reduced-price cafeteria food at the university, etc. As long as they had money to live, they could remain students forever. It’s different a story today, with the bigger problem being that institutions are cash-strapped and overcrowded.

Somehow, there has to be a balance. I love the idea of higher education being 100% free for the student (who wouldn’t?), but ultimately someone has to pay, and that should be a fair price. At the moment, spending is so totally out of control in US institutions (the “country-clubization of the American University,” as described by Richard K. Vedder in this article) that no taxpayer could be expected to foot that bill. I don’t have a problem with expecting a student to contribute something towards his or her education, but perhaps the cost should be tied to what he or she earns after completing the degree. I can say with no doubt that those of my friends who studied computer science would be in a far better position to pay back more retroactively than those of us who studied something in the humanities.  (But then maybe those students would claim that isn’t fair because they would have rather studied Jane Austen, as well?) But it would mean that students who, say, would rather work in the education sector and don’t want to be investment bankers aren’t struggling the rest of their lives to pay their monthly bills AND their student loans off. Or you could simply make it a flat, low-cost\heavily-subsidized fee for all. But I know this all smacks too strongly of socialism (which seems to be a dirty word in the US and is often confused with communism), so we’ll most likely continue to have costly, unnecessary spending that drives tuition prices up and young adults going seriously into debt for education.


About bittenbythebug

I love travel and have always been fascinated by other cultures. Back in 2004, I began my life as an expat in Edinburgh, Scotland. Fast forward 5 1/2 amazing years later to 2010 and the new chapter in my expat adventure: Würzburg, Germany.
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2 Responses to Paying the Price

  1. Bonnie says:

    You’re right. It feels like we can always count on having a mortgage, a car payment, and a student loan payment.

  2. fenella says:

    I’m like you in that I’m in several minds about it. I think education for its own sake is a good thing for society. I think liberal arts education is important to produce a well-rounded society. Plus so many subjects cross over. So having anthropological skills helps one in business or journalism or just being able to work in a team of people.
    But I agree there are some daft subjects out there, and too many people go for what they like rather than what skills businesses/society needs. I would expect that if you’re paying these hefty amounts for the education, then that will even out. Students will be choosing the computer science degrees or engineering, putting in the hard graft so that they don’t have a hefty debt at the end. Market forces if you will. And making students pay for their degree helps turn their choices and studies to where there is a demand.
    But then I like the idea of access for all. So perhaps grants are doled out in subjects where we really people to be learning, like the STEM subjects.

    Much as I enjoyed and excelled at my chosen majors, I wish I’d done something more business-related to be more useful on my CV. I regret not doing computer science for example. *shrug*
    If I had children I’d be guiding them that way long before they reach uni. Trying to shape their direction in the early years to stick at the math and science, even if it means lower grades, it’s a harder subject more in demand. But then teacher quality and enthusiasm makes a huge difference.
    Which gets into a whole other subject.

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