Student Debt and the Cost of a University Education

October 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Post-secondary education is expensive.  That’s common knowledge.  That’s why I was out in the streets with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of my fellow citizens in Montréal last summer, protesting the then-Liberal government’s plans to halt the tuition freeze.  Québec’s tuition is the lowest in North America, if not the Western world.  And it’s a good value, as Québec’s universities compete on the Canadian, North American, and global levels.  Of course, tuition is only super cheap if you are a Quebecer, but even the out of province rates are relatively low, which is why so many Americans send their kids to McGill.

Here in the United States, education is prohibitively expensive.  One of my students last year told me he transferred from Northeastern because his education was costing well over $30,000/year.  I nearly spat my coffee out.  Even at my small state university, tuition is more expensive than it is pretty much anywhere in Canada.  Many of my students work multiple jobs to pay the bills.  One of my students in my American history class works full-time in a career-track job and then supplements his income with a part-time job to keep a roof over his head, food on his table, and his school bills paid.

Not surprisingly, student debt is also a major problem.  It has been for a long time, I might add.  I came out of my undergraduate degree owing something close to the GNP of Nicaragua to the Canadian government.  I’ll be paying that off until I retire, or something very close to it.  And that’s from Canada!  My American wife also owes what my friend Karl would call a “metric shit-tonne” of money for her education.

The average student loan debt in Canada is around $27,000.  It’s about the same in the US.  A website, projectstudentdebt.org, offers an interactive map for each state in the union with details on the average debt in each state and the proportion of students with debt.  In New Hampshire, the average debt is the highest, north of $32,000, and 75% of the students in the Granite State have debt.  The highest proportion of debt is in North Dakota, where 83% of students are carrying some.  I recently read another scary stat.  In Massachusetts in 1988, state student aid paid 80% of average tuition and fees.  Today, state student aid only pays 8% of the average tuition and fees.

Obviously, education costs something, it’s not free, and I’m not sure it should be.  But the reason why I was out in the streets in Montréal last summer is simple: once the freeze gets lifted, then tuition is set to the market.  And the market can always bear more than what many people can afford to pay.  And then education gets priced out of the range of many.  At my small state university, many of our students are the sons and daughters of immigrants, or they’re working-class kids, the first in their families to go to university.  Or they’re veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, looking for a chance to get ahead.

My school also has relatively poor rankings, both in state and nationally.  But not because the students are weak. Nor because faculty are weak.  Nor is it due to student-professor ratios (most classes max out around 30), nor is it even because of a poor library.  No.  My school gets poor rankings because our students are forced to juggle so many jobs (and families and careers) to be here, so that they take longer than normal (whatever that is) to complete their degrees.  Or they’re forced to drop out.

Given our present-day economy, a university education is essential to getting a job, establishing a career and having access to all the things we want from life.  And I applaud my students as the scramble to get an education.  But I also know that if it wasn’t for student loans and what scholarships I qualified for in undergrad (and grad school), I’d still be flipping burgers at an IHOP in suburban Vancouver.  My parents couldn’t afford to send me to school.  I don’t regret it, even with the massive debt I carry.  But I also wish that education didn’t require so many sacrifices on the part of my students.

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