Call to Action: Affordable Higher Education

College is expensive. This is a fact that we all know to be true, but it’s hard to fully grasp until we begin paying off student loans. Even then, we see debt as an individual concern when in reality, it is so much bigger than we can even imagine.

In a New York Times editorial, the director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, Ben Miller, shared tangible data about how extreme student debt really is. According to recent data from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, more than 44 million Americans are paying off student loans. Collectively, these borrowers hold nearly $1.5 trillion in student debt.

The average student loan borrower graduates with $37,172 in educational debt—a $20,000 rise in the last 13 years. The idea of putting oneself in so much debt to earn a degree might seem short-sighted on the surface. It might seem easy to merely forgo college and pursue a vocation—something “blue collar” trade advocates have promoted for some time. While affordable technical training and apprenticeships could alleviate the educational burden for some workers, it is simply not enough.

Why It Matters: America Needs More College Grads

Going to college used to be an optional path for professional success. Today, it’s imperative. As America’s economy shifts from a manufacturing-based system to a knowledge-based one, demand for college-educated professionals increases. This is true even in difficult economic times.

According to a report from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, more than 95 percent of jobs created during the period following the recession went to college-educated workers. In other words, out of 11.6 million new jobs, 11.5 million required at least some college-level education.

Not only are tomorrow’s workers affected by the change, so is the economy. Higher education means higher earnings and employment rates, which, in turn, produce more tax revenue. Higher earnings would also theoretically mean more disposable income, which translates to more consumer spending, further stimulating local markets. “Theoretically” is the operative word here, which brings us back to the matter at hand: American graduates are spending their salaries on student debt instead of on houses, cars, and other investments.

What is a country to do? The following looks at how other countries handle education costs and how the United States differs. We will also explore some of the common-sense measures states and colleges could adopt now to alleviate the burden.

How Five Countries Manage College Costs

Anyone who has read about or embraced Nordic trends like hygge is probably also familiar with the region’s emphasis on social benefits, such as stellar paternal leave policies, universal healthcare, and free college. Denmark, Norway, and Finland are not the only nations to make college free—or at the very least more manageable. Here is how a few other countries manage higher education costs:

  • Germany – Regional governments across Germany have recently nixed college tuition—and not just for its residents. College is free for international students, too. Germany is famous for its access to technical or trade education as well as its apprenticeship model that keeps jobless rates low for young professionals.
  • Czech Republic – College students in the Czech Republic can go to public universities for free. Unlike Germany, this courtesy does not extend to international students, and beneficiaries must study in the local language. The nation also begins charging students if they stay in college more than a year beyond the standard term of study expected for their degrees.
  • Estonia – In 2014, Estonia extended free tuition to full-time students attending degree programs taught in the local language. Like the Czech Republic, students may have to begin paying for school if they fall behind in their studies. However, only 11 percent of students assume educational debt, according to CNN, and the average annual loan per student is less than $3,500.
  • France – Unlike the other countries on this list, France technically requires students to pay tuition. However, these rates are extremely low. As of 2017, French students pursuing bachelor’s degrees paid about $212 in annual tuition, according to CNN.
  • Iceland – Like its Nordic neighbors, Iceland offers free college education at public institutions, but it also takes the proper steps to protect students attending private schools, which are still free to charge tuition: the Icelandic Student Loan Fund caps interest rates on student loans at just 1 percent.

Many Americans are skeptical of the notion that the U.S. could realistically adopt the kind of low- or no-cost college system typical of many of our allies due to the country’s size and complex infrastructure. These concerns are not without merit. According to Business Insider, European nations can more easily manage higher education costs because they produce fewer college graduates, both in straightforward enrollments and according to the share of their population. European countries also typically have much higher taxes than the United States, and can, therefore, afford to fund more social programs.

Making higher education free in the U.S. would be a major undertaking, assuming the concept could make it through the political battlefield. That does not mean we cannot address the problem on the state level. In 2017, for example, New York announced it would offer free college tuition to residents attending public schools and whose families earned less than $125,000 a year. Florida and Texas have also dabbled with low-cost bachelor’s degrees in high-demand disciplines. These efforts prove that we can address staggering college costs and minimize their consequences.

Five Ways We Can Make College More Affordable Now

Overhauling higher education finance would be difficult and time-consuming at best, impossible at worst. The issue is not new, however, and experts have proposed several ways to make college more affordable with minimal political upheaval. Among them:

  • Support the 20 percent rule – The 20 percent rule is pretty straightforward: Pell grant recipients must account for at least 20 percent of new enrollments at any colleges receiving public funds. According to a Center on Education and the Workforce report, the nation’s more selective colleges are the least likely to admit these students despite budget surpluses and research suggesting that Pell grantees thrive in these environments.
  • Recognize experiential learning – For years, colleges have recognized the experience of military members through credit-by-exam programs, which award college credit through tests rather than coursework. According to The Atlantic, more than 40 percent of postsecondary students are older than 25 and have some professional experience. If more colleges offered more credit-for-experience options for all students, they could decrease college costs by an average of 10 percent.
  • Leverage educational technology – Small, intimate courses may seem like the gold standard for personalized learning, but they are not necessarily more effective than well-structured large classes—particularly those that use online course technology. The National Center for Academic Transformation redesigned individual courses to reduce instruction and improve educational outcomes. These courses achieved an average of 35 percent savings and improved grades, attendance, completion and retention. Online textbooks and depositories of open source educational resources would further reduce costs.
  • Help graduates stay on track – According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, only 60 percent of U.S. undergraduates complete their bachelor’s programs within six years, let alone the standard four. These additional years increase tuition and state funding and resources that supplement students’ educations. High schools can help by providing more career guidance services. Colleges can develop more targeted or “fast-track” degrees and add additional program enrollment oversight.
  • Provide additional social guidance and supportSara Goldrick-Rab, a higher education policy and sociology professor at Temple University, suggests that colleges should do more to support cash-strapped students than to reduce tuition costs. She advises academic institutions to push back against unaffordable housing and add more mixed-income options that focus on value. She also challenges colleges to not only help students apply for financial aid, but also for other helpful support resources, like food stamps and government-supported health insurance.
Aimee Hosler
Aimee Hosler

Aimee Hosler is a long-time journalist specializing in education and technology. She is an advocate for experiential learning among all ages and serves as the director of communications for a non-profit community makerspace. She holds a degree in journalism from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

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