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Burdened journey of higher ed

Sean Bruce, Columnist

Once, not too long ago, college was viewed as a fortress of sorts, protecting its students from the harsh realities of the real world until they had learned and matured enough to cope. These seekers of knowledge could plumb the depths of their curiosity while learning valuable skills that will help them in the future. This image may certainly remain strong in popular culture, but some recent developments have started to wear away at the university system’s ivory tower façade.

In the past a combination of low tuition, reliable government funding and decent economic circumstances meant that students could expect a fairly carefree existence in the college environment. (Note: nostalgic reference to the past may not necessarily reflect reality for everyone). Now, skyrocketing costs of attendance, cuts in state funding and recent economic stress have stunted the one thing college students need most, financial support.

According to College Board, an advocacy group made up of universities, the average annual cost of tuition has increased 150 percent since 1990, and has actually increased roughly 900 percent since 1978. While inflation does account for some of this, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that inflation has only increased roughly 350 percent since 1978. The daunting aspect of these figures is not the rate of increase, although it is overwhelming, but that it only accounts for a portion of the expected expenses of students.

The average cost of tuition alone, not accounting for housing, fees, books, food, and other necessities, remains at roughly $8,244. Coupled with these other expenses students can expect to pay somewhere in the region of $15,000 over the course of one academic year.

It is important to remember that according to the U.S. Census Bureau the current real, meaning adjusted for inflation, median income was $50,522 and estimates suggest that it will be lower by the end of 2012. This means that the average American household attempting to support a student at college would cost over one fourth of their income.

This means that an increasing number of students are turning to student loans to finance the education that their families can no longer fully support. As a result, 2011 saw some of the highest student loan debts in history. With $1 trillion of student loan debt held by people in America, it has even surpassed the combined total of credit card debt. Actual student debt has increased 511 percent since 1999. According to CNN, graduating seniors in 2011 held an average of $27,000 in student debt with at least two thirds of them with some form of debt.

Worse, the increasing amount of student debt combined with poor job prospects and economic hardship of graduating seniors has led to higher defaulting rates, recently reaching 13.1 percent, meaning that almost one sixth of all student loan holders, or about 6 million people, defaulted.

Now what do all these statistics mean? Obviously, it is not a great time to be a college student in America. Without scholarships and family financial support, most students can expect to graduate with a piece of paper and a crippling amount of debt. Yet the alternative to pursuing a college degree, working straight out of high school or pursuing vocational training, almost ensures economic difficulty as a worsening job market. It makes potential employment opportunities dim. Thus many students are left with few alternatives other than to accept the unfavorable conditions inherent in the student loan system and try to graduate as soon as possible to minimize the damage.

It is difficult to imagine how this might get worse, but in all likelihood the situation will continue to deteriorate without some substantial overhaul of the system or significant economic boost. Either would require some combination of competent leadership, popular support, and fortuitous circumstances to achieve. All seem somewhat lacking at the moment and there is little reason to believe in a sudden appearance.

Luckily a college education has seemed to provide many debtors with the ability and methods necessary to begin instituting some change. An online petition campaign is currently under way known the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012. The petition has already received more than 1 million signatures and efforts have been made to force the Education Committee Chair of the House of Representatives, John Kline, into action. Whether or not this initiative proves successful, it nevertheless serves as a cause for optimism. After all even if one petition is defeated, it will pave the way for more effective moves.

A radical suggestion voiced by some protestors is to emulate other western nations with nationalized secondary education systems allowing for free, if highly regulated college admissions. Now this system might work in the U.S., but it would require a great deal of effort to mesh it with our current policies. Even then, it would likely suffer from a lack of proper funding, since our government is in no shape to take on greater financial responsibilities at this time. Perhaps in the future, free secondary education can join primary education as an inalienable right of U.S. citizens, but that is still a long way off, and if our current school system is any indication, this is not necessarily a bright future.

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