Everyone is familiar with the fact that the cost of attending college has skyrocketed over the past 30 years and that students are finding higher education to be less affordable and less beneficial to their lives. For many the gut response to solving this problem is to increase government aid to students in the form of grants and loans. The problem with this strategy is that we have tried it already and the results are our current state of higher education. As college costs have been rising, government spending on financial aid such as student loans has risen as well. The theory behind this correlation is that colleges know they can increase tuition nearly as much as they want because they know that the government will give students more and more money to pay for college. Unlike a regular marketplace, there seems to be no incentive for traditional colleges to keep costs down. They have a long list of prospective students willing to pay whatever the price may be for that college degree we are all told is essential to our future.
So what to do about the problem?
First, not everyone should go to college. I think education is great, but there is a difference between education and schooling and for some people it just doesn’t make financial sense for them to get a 4 year college degree. We all have different talents. Some are naturally geared toward academic subjects and some are excellent plumbers. Before we start looking down on plumbers, try to imagine the world without any running water…
Second, the people that decide to go to college should bear a big chunk of the financial burden so that they have to think hard about whether or not a college degree is their cup of tea. Its been long known that public schools have higher dropout rates than more expensive private schools. One explanation is that many students attend school for the “college experience” more than for studying, so they gravitate toward the cheaper schools where they have to pay less money to party on the weekends. One side effect of this is high dropout rates. Now I’m not against my fellow college students having a good time at school, just don’t do it at the taxpayer’s expense.
Third, and this is my own idea so it need a lot of refining, all people from the age of 18 to 25 (age is flexible) should be exempt from income taxes. This way, if you don’t go to college and start working right out of high school you can have a head start in saving money and accumulating wealth. And if you do go to college and get a job soon after graduation you can use your earnings to pay back student loans instead of paying taxes. This scheme can probably best be done with some sort of system of tax credits for young people with student loans or for working young people wanting to save.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, we need to let free market forces work to innovate the way we educate people. The future seems to be in online education that can be highly effective and drastically cut costs. At Boston College I have taken intro courses where you sit in a lecture a few times a week, write a paper, and take a couple tests. There is no reason why this course couldn’t have been given online at a much cheaper cost. Perhaps the future of higher education is a sort of hybrid system where you take cheaper online courses half the time and more expensive traditional on-campus courses half the time. This way you can get the benefits of both styles of education.
Expect many professors and college administrators to fight hard against these changes in the name of “protecting the student.” If costs of college goes down, college revenues will probably decline as well.