College Cross-Talk

Piggy bank with graduation cap

Here are some important things to keep in mind when discussing college costs.
Image: Shutterstock

There’s an oddly disconnected conversation happening right now in discussion about college prices. On the one side, there’s a massive amount of data showing how low- and middle-income families are slamming up against the rapidly rising cost of college. On the other are arguments that the true cash-in-hand price of college is low or free for the lowest-income students due to grants, loans, and scholarships.

There is no middle ground to these two arguments because they are not taking place in the same dialogue. Those who claim college is affordable are only talking about tuition and fees and what you pay up front. Those on the other side are referring to an entire spectrum of cost that includes years of housing, transportation, loss of income due to not being able to work as much while you study, and the inevitable interest and extra costs of loans.

This isn’t just a philosophical disconnect. The misunderstandings between the two points of view are visible in everything from college advertising to national policy. Here are points that everyone involved in this discussion absolutely needs to remember.

  • The price of college far exceeds tuition. Think double, if you include room and board, transportation, books, and supplies. Double that again to include lost wages for the many who are unable to both study and work full-time.
  • College price–what it costs a student to be a student–goes up. College cost–what it costs the school to provide that education–rises much more slowly. Tuition is not rising because it’s more expensive to teach now than it was ten years ago. It’s rising because the public and the government are less willing to chip in.
  • College students are not children. It’s not a bunch of teenagers studying on Daddy’s dime that we’re talking about. About 40% of college students are older than 25. In community colleges and vocational schools, it’s over 50%. Students are supporting themselves more than ever, even while rising prices are making that increasingly impossible.
  • Loans increase the total price of education, not decrease it. While loans may make it possible for a low-income student to attend college and improve their job chances, accepting those loans may make it impossible for that student to own a home, begin a family, or find financial security for years or even decades. They are in-the-moment help, not true aid.

There’s a lot of talk nationwide about the crisis of college tuition and student loans. It’s important that we all use a common language in this conversation to shine a light through the misunderstandings to the truths of the matter.


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