Opinion

Ann McFeatters: Reining in high cost of college should be priority

High school seniors waiting for college acceptance letters, we feel your pain. But our nation has collective pain from the college process that is more worrisome.

College costs too much for what students are getting and for what we as a society get in return. And, as usual, Congress is doing nothing about it.

About 40 million Americans now have student loan debt. The average graduate in the United States has $40,000 in debt upon graduation, and millions owe much more. Some senior citizens are losing Social Security benefits because of student loans, although the government claims you’re not supposed to lose benefits if your only income is Social Security.

There’s an entire new industry profiting from student loan repayment plans even as thousands of college graduates scramble for low-wage service industry jobs, trying to figure out whether expensive graduate schools are worth the time and money.

This is a true catch 22 — it’s difficult to get a good job without a college or graduate degree but if you do, you are saddled with burdensome debt. Unless your daddy is rich or you are exceptionally good-looking, you probably will not live as well as previous college-educated generations.

America’s universities are the best in the world, which makes them a lure for the best and brightest from every other nation. Thus, our good students compete not only with their U.S. peers but with the smart children of the world’s richest people.

College for students in many other nations is free or costs relatively little. U.S. colleges cost too much because two-thirds of students fail to graduate in four years, colleges and universities think parents demand incredible facilities (luxurious dorms, top-flight athletic compounds, student unions with gourmet meals) and bureaucrats will soon outnumber professors.

A report by the American Association of University Professors found pay for bureaucrats surpassing salaries for teachers, especially adjuncts and part-timers. Between 1978 and 2014, the number of administrative jobs rose 369 percent while the number of part-time faculty increased 286 percent. Full-time tenured or tenure-track academic positions increased only 23 percent.

President Obama has tried to make reining in the cost of college a priority. The other day, at Georgia Tech, he said, “Higher education is, more than ever, the surest ticket to the middle class.” He said his administration has expanded tax credits and Pell Grants, reformed student loan programs and capped loan payments at 10 percent of income for million so they at least can pay their rent.

But Congress has done and will do nothing to implement his plan to bring the tuition to community college down to zero on grounds that two years of higher education should be free and universal.

Frustrated, Obama has a Student Aid Bill of Rights that every student “deserves access to a quality, affordable education. Every student should be able to access the resources to pay for college. Every borrower has the right to an affordable repayment plan. And every borrower has the right to quality customer service, reliable information, and fair treatment, even if they struggle to repay their loans.”

Obama is asking for signatures on his feel-good petition at WhiteHouse.gov/CollegeOpportunity. Warning: It can take longer to load than the Affordable Health Care website in its infancy.

Once again, parents and students have to figure this out on their own. Some high school students who’ve been slovenly about studying and their grades should not go to college until or if they are ready. We need better high school vocational counselors equipped to determine students’ interests and assets. Parents, pay for aptitude tests.

Community colleges and state schools are a good alternative to pricey private colleges. Studying engineering, computer science, math, business and economics will yield higher long-range salaries than traditional liberal arts studies.

A committed, hard-working student can get a good education online, but beware of racking up big tuition fees at for-profits. Tap every source of financial aid.

Congratulations to students receiving those coveted acceptance letters. Tomorrow you can figure out how painful it will be to foot the bill.

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