Tuition Craziness: Enslaved to Student Debt


Someone asked me the other day why I would bake a cake on my charcoal grill. The obvious, if somewhat snarky answer, is “because I can.” I believe that the same answer, ultimately, holds true when it comes to the rising tuition costs in the United States. Why do colleges have such high tuition? Because they can.

The issue of high tuition in the U.S. is one for the headlines. “The Great Tuition Pander: Obama versus the bursars”, “Why Tuition Has Skyrocketed at State Schools”, and “Why Does College Cost So Much” are just a few recent headlines that Google will readily find. Books have been written on this subject, both to criticize colleges and universities for their spending, and to defend them by arguing for rising tuition rates.

Many would call me crass for boiling such a complicated issue down to a simple “because they can” statement, but I didn’t come up with it myself. Richard Vedder, a distinguished professor of economics at Ohio University and author of Going Broke By Degree: Why College Costs Too Much says the same thing: “because they can!” His argument, of course, is more complicated, but boils down to market forces, or the lack thereof. Parents and students don’t often see the true costs of college because they are shielded from it. State and Federal governments subsidize colleges and universities, and what a student doesn’t receive in scholarships or grants is covered by loans that are only an application away. This means that there are no incentives for colleges and universities to cut costs.

Andrew Ferguson of The Weekly Standard, in his humorous and eye-opening book Crazy U, describes the rise in tuition documented by Vedder.

Vedder is always tossing out calculations like this, finding new ways to make plain what parents know in their bones and feel in their bank accounts, the mind-boggling, impoverishing rise in the price of going to college. One historical study shows that college tuition, adjusted for inflation, increased between 2 and 3 percent a year from the beginning of the last century till the mid-1970s. Back then, the old wheeze among college presidents was that a year of college shouldn’t cost more than the price of a mid-sized Chevrolet. Around 1975, however, something happened. College costs detached themselves from the rest of the economy and, like a dirigible unloosed from its mooring, angled sharply skyward. Annual increases of 5 and 6 percent above inflation have been common ever since. In one year alone, 2003, average tuition rose 14 percent. The annual cost of a typical private college went—studies show—from $3,663 in 1975 to $34,132 in 2009, nearly a tenfold increase. Add in another eight or ten thousand for room and board, and a parent could buy a couple Chevy’s with what he was paying for college, with enough left over for a Harley.

Recently, a young man sat across from me and told me about the financial situation that he and his new bride faced. They both longed to be in Christian ministry and both had attended an upper midwest Christian college, acquiring degrees in ministry. Now, having been married not even one year, they are facing a formidable mountain of unassailable height. Combined, they have about $110,000 in debt. I sat stunned, reeling as I tried to imagine being young, newly married, and shackled to a massive ball and chain of seemingly endless payments.

With surprising timing, the Wall Street Journal expanded this one instance to the national scale by publishing an article, which stated that student-loan debt in the U.S. topped $1 trillion dollars. Catch that? O-N-E  T-R-I-L-L-I-O-N  D-O-L-L-A-R-S. The collective national college tuition debt is greater than the collective national credit card debt. How did this happen?

In the same way that there is little incentive for colleges and universities to lower tuition or slow its growth, there is little incentive for students and parents to resist spending too much. Ferguson writes in Crazy U:

Normally, the market “punishes” decisions that are financially irrational. In higher ed, you can be as irrational as you want. With aid money and subsidized loans sloshing around, the penalty for making an irrational decision is vastly reduced—after all, it’s not my money—and therefore middle-class consumers are, no surprise, more likely to make crazy decisions. And let’s face it: sending your kid to a selective school that you can’t afford, especially when a good education is easily obtainable at a less expensive school elsewhere is crazy. But! If you’re getting a discount on the price, through loans or grants, the decision, at first glance, looks less crazy.

What then is the proper response to this craziness? The proper response is to recognize that going into significant debt for an undergraduate degree does not serve the purpose that many think it does and then to act accordingly. To act accordingly means to resist the temptation which says debt is necessary in order to get the best education. It is possible—even probable—that one can attain an excellent education without debt. After all, there are many private and community colleges that can provide the needed education without an overwhelming cost.

But what about a Christian education? Sure, community colleges may be less expensive, but they are not Christian, and Wheaton, Union, Liberty, Northwestern, and others are just as expensive, or more so, than many of the nation’s select secular schools. What should a middle-class Christian family do? Unfortunately, the pressure and incentives to go into debt for a Christian education are just as powerful as their secular counterparts. And just as unfortunately, the same financial aid, grants, subsidies, and craziness are as easily available.

There was an old saying in the Tech industry, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” Then, in the swirl of technology changes, the safe choice changed to Microsoft, and now it may be something different entirely. The same sort of reasoning holds true today regarding selecting a college and taking on burdensome debt, and needs to be resisted just as much as buying Microsoft, namely, that going to one of the big Christian colleges is a safe choice regardless of the cost. It is not a safe choice if the student finishes his degree with $60,000 in debt and no ability to get a high paying ministry job. Therefore, one potential solution is to find a small private Christian college that provides a rigorous academic experience without high tuition costs. This would require a bit more searching, and even some courage.

It seems to me then, that it is imperative for Christian parents and students to swim upstream and fight hard to resist the emotional pull that comes with choosing a college and often leads to taking on irrational amounts of debt.

The same frenzy that has parents pushing their children to excel in kindergarten, play an instrument, be on the ball team, take swimming lessons, and get good grades—all at the same time—is the same frenzy that pushes parents past rational fiscal responsibility to willingly sign over their and their children’s future for an overpriced bachelor degree. Parents have bought into the idea that their children have one shot at the right education that will set them up for life. But God is sovereign and good. There isn’t only one shot at the good life. The Christian life isn’t about making sure we pick the correct door that leads to God’s will or to the best possible future for our kids. The Christian life is about trusting the sovereign God of the Universe, obeying his Word, and making the wisest choices we can that both further his glory and deepen our satisfaction in him. I am confident that this does not always include taking on exorbitant debt in order to gain the best education money can (possibly) buy.

Instead, it means being frugal with our money; stewards, with both our resources and our children. It means finding a college that has a right view of the purpose of education, namely, to know God in Jesus Christ, and that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. It means having the courage to send your kids to that college even if it isn’t well known or prestigious or accredited. It means spending tuition money in a way that both honors God and provides a rigorous academic experience for our children.

It means doing something different. Because you can.