Why can’t higher education be affordable?


When I was of college age, back in the 1950s, it was possible for middle-class American families to save  enough money to send their children through college, and for poor but ambitious students to work their way through college.   It also was possible for a hard-working person without a college education to earn a decent living.

Now a college diploma is a prerequisite for a decent job, much as a high school diploma was 60 years ago, and for many students, a college education is out of reach without taking on a burdensome level of debt.   It is a high stakes gamble.   If the college diploma is a ticket to a good job, the gamble pays off.  If it isn’t, then the borrower faces the possibility of a lifetime of debt servitude.

President Obama has proposed a plan for student debt relief, which is to give financial incentives to colleges with affordable tuition and good graduation rates.  Like his heath care form plan, it is complicated, offers opportunities to game the system and may or may not do some good in the long run.

I think the solution is for state universities to provide a good education with free or low tuition to everyone who is capable of doing college work, and for community colleges to provide free or remedial education and job training.  The federal government could provide support to enable them to afford to be able to do this.

I also think the federal government should buy up existing student debt and provide refinancing at a nominal interest rate.  This is part of the larger world debt situation:  People and nations owe more than they ever can repay and there needs to be some means of writing down this debt.


President Obama’s new higher education plan by Tyler Cowen for Marginal Revolution.  A good analysis.

Obama’s New Education Proposal: Change, or Changed Subject? by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone. A good political analysis.

Ripping Off Young America: the Student Loan Scandal by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.  I thought it was a good idea when President Obama ended outsourcing of student loans to private middlemen.  But it turns out that, according to Taibbi, the government itself is making more profit from these loans than the middlemen did.

Hat tip for the graphic to occasional links & commentary.

[Update]  One thing I most certainly do not advocate is the federal government trying to reform private higher education.  Let public colleges and universities provide an affordable sound basic education, and let the private institutions do what they want.

Some will be clubs for the children of rich people and others devoted to helping the poor, some will be devoted to the study of the Greek and Latin classics and others to cutting-edge scientific research, some will be adjuncts to their football teams and others adjuncts to venture capital companies.  Diversity is bound to produce some good results, and cannot do much harm if there is a public option as an alternative.

I believe in general that the government’s role should be to provide public services and enforce laws for the common good, not to engage in social engineering.

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One Response to “Why can’t higher education be affordable?”

  1. michaeleriksson Says:

    Unfortunately, college has gone from academics (“ars gratia artis”) to industry (“pecunia non olet”) over time—and with the stranglehold this industry has, I fear that any improvement must be based in reversing this trend.

    As an aside: A significant but often overlooked part of the problem is that college used to partially be a filter for inborn qualities (not just a source of learning), where those with a degree had a strongly increased likelihood to be smart, curious, industrious, … The increase in college graduations and dumbing down has reduced this filter function, which is the main reason why the value of a diploma has been reduced—it simply says far less about its owner.


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