Doug brought up the subject, and Barry weighed in, and then I started to, but realized I had several different things to say about it, and might as well make it a separate post…
Here’s the relevant part of Doug’s comment:
University of South Carolina has announced a record number of freshman in the upcoming class. I wonder how many are taking student loans to attend? I wonder how many of those know how much their loans are and what the interest rate is? I wonder how many of them are smart enough to attend college but not be able to calculate what their future payments will be? I wonder how many of them are pursuing majors that will not pay a salary sufficient to support their loan payments in the future? I wonder how many of them will cry about how they were tricked into taking such confusing loans and that is “not fair” that they have to pay them back ten years from now and expect the government to cancel the debts they signed up for?
Barry responded by defending efforts by the Biden administration — and others — to relieve the considerable college debt burden out there.
Well, it’s a completely out-of-hand situation, this spiraling cost. I’m not sure where you apply the lever to fix it. But we can at least define the problem. Here’s a simply explanation of how much more college costs now, based only on my own experience. You may have your own examples…
You may recall that back in 2011, I shared with you a receipt for my tuition at Memphis State University for the spring semester of 1974.
It cost $174. OK, you people who are young enough to think of it as a long time ago will say, “But that was almost 50 years ago, ya geezer!” You know, inflation and all that. Well, let me dispense with that. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index calculator, what I paid then translates to $1,141.42 in 2023.
Think you could pay that with a check as I did (the check provided by my parents, of course)? Well, you certainly could if you’re one of those gazillions of kids driving around Columbia with the brand-new SUVs their parents sent them to college in. But suppose you couldn’t, and my guess is that many couldn’t. But they could get loans, and then likely pay those loans off in a very few years of working after graduation. You might gripe about making the payments, but it wouldn’t be an anvil strapped to your back for the rest of your life.
But what are students paying in 2023? Well, I suppose you can calculate it a number of ways, but USC puts out the number $12,688. More than 11 times what Memphis State cost me, adjusted for inflation. Mind you, that’s for South Carolina residents. For those kids driving new SUVs with out-of-state plates, it’s $34,934.
That’s just tuition and fees, of course. Room and board costs the S.C. resident another $16,324. What did it cost me at the dawn of antiquity? The check I wrote for my dorm and meal plan in fall 1973 was for $235. In the lamentable year of 2023, that would be $1,541.57. What kids will be paying as they arrive on campus over the next couple of weeks is, again, close to 11 times what I paid.
And mind you, this Memphis State dorm wasn’t one of those prison-cell-type arrangements like the Honeycombs, where I lived back in the fall of 1971. It was a private dorm just off campus. It was way, way nicer than most public dorms. It was a lot like Bates House when I was at USC. Bates was new then, and had the features that would become the new standard — the suite arrangement that meant two dorm rooms shared one bathroom, instead of the one barracks-style latrine per floor in the Honeycombs. The decor looked like you were in a Holiday Inn — which isn’t the Taj Mahal, but light years better than the cinder-block walls of the Honeycombs, where my roommate taught me (he was a junior, I a freshman) to dress over the light fixture of the room below ours, which made the cold tile floor slightly warmer to bare feet.
Anyway, back to the astronomical cost of higher education today. And mind you, we’re not talking here about the expensive schools…
What causes it, and what can be done about it?
Well, I suppose part of it is that we live in a more materialistic society these days — or at least, one with greater material expectations. Take my earlier mention of all those cars that make it so hard to drive through that part of town when school is in session. I think I’ve told the anecdote before about my uncle in Bennettsville needing some new bags for his vacuum cleaner when I was at USC. The only place he knew where to get them in those pre-Amazon days was the K-Mart out at the end of Knox Abbott in Cayce — you know, the place that’s now a huge U-Haul facility. I was willing to go get them, but I needed transportation. My roommate John, who knew everybody, knew a guy on our floor who had a car (possibly the only guy who had a car). He set me up and the guy drove me out there, (which seems amazingly generous in retrospect — I suppose I paid for gas). Everywhere else I went, I walked — to the Winn-Dixie that was where Walgreen’s is now in Five Points, to the movies downtown, wherever. I never needed to go anywhere further. When I went to Bennettsville on weekends, I walked to the Greyhound station behind Tapp’s and took a bus.
None of this seemed a hardship then. I infer that those kids tying up traffic downtown today might disagree.
I didn’t have a meal plan, and neither did my friend Perry, who lived in a dorm that made the Honeycombs look palatial. He was in this old former frat house at the corner of Blossom and Sumter. Whenever I went to see him when it had rained recently, I would have to walk around or through puddles that covered much of the hallway. I’d go there every night to pick him up on my way, and we’d walk downtown to the S&S cafeteria, where I would splurge — sometimes, as I recall, my bill was well over $2.
But I digress. My point is that today, people — the kids and their parents — expect more, and their parents are ready to pay for it, sometimes to an astounding degree. Once you’ve looked at their cars, check out those private housing developments scattered all over town, the ones with their own regular buses that bring the residents to the Horseshoe to save them from having to (shudder) walk, or waste all that time trying to find a parking space.
And the university caters to these expectations. Just look around. Or if you don’t have time to roam, just look at the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center, and the elevated walkway to it from the student parking lots. You might easily cite your own examples.
Then you could get into salaries, or football ticket prices, or what have you. These places drip money, and kids want to have “the college experience,” which apparently involves a great deal more than learning.
Or to return to a favorite old hobbyhorse of my own, remember how the lottery was supposed to pay for college, but basically served as a huge price-support scheme for ever-higher tuition?
Which students pay, and if Mama and Daddy didn’t have the money handy, they pay off stupendous loans for the rest of their lives.
You know, when I said this was going to be too long for a comment, I wasn’t just thinking about what you see above. I had a couple of other points I was going to get into — such as the fact that it seems we hear more these days about sheer numbers of students in the freshman class, rather than their rising SAT scores, which used to be a treasured goal at USC.
But I’ll get to that another time…