As a recent college graduate, I am uniquely aware of the struggles of the modern university student. After the battery of standardized tests, the marathon essay-writing sessions and a sleepless decision day, high school seniors who have barely crossed into adulthood are expected to make one of the biggest financial commitments of their lives.
First come the questions: Should I take the more affordable route and enroll at a state school, or should I learn in a more tailored environment at a liberal arts college?
Should I choose a STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) major to strengthen my job prospects, or should I pursue that passion for language and literature I’ve always had?
Which scholarships and work-study jobs am I eligible for, and how does that change my decision? And let’s not even think about grad school yet.
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Underneath this individual uncertainty, there are more distressing macroeconomic trends at play. With total student loan debt surpassing $1.3 trillion last year (second only to outstanding mortgages) the average graduate of the class of 2016 owed more than $37,000.
That’s a staggering 74 percent of the average starting salary for those graduates. And since the Carter Administration, college tuition costs have risen more than 1,100 percent — faster than the costs of food, medical care and housing combined.
It is well-documented that the student debt burden will have negative effects on other sectors of the economy.
The crushing costs of loans discourages recent graduates from buying homes, starting their own businesses and raising families. Yet plain and simple, in an increasingly globalized and technologically advanced economy, our only option is to pursue higher education, no matter the cost.
Yet there are signs of change: the Tennessee Promise scholarship famously pays for two years of community college for graduating seniors, with funding provided by lottery ticket sales. The state recently expanded the program to include adult learners over the age of 24.
The New York State Legislature recently established the Excelsior Scholarship, which will cover tuition at public colleges for middle and upper-middle income families, provided that graduates live and work in the state for the same number of years they received the scholarship.
As president of Purdue University, former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has implemented a six-year tuition freeze, widely bucking the trend of rising tuition costs. Additionally, his Back a Boiler program allows for students to engage in an income-share agreement after graduating, leaving investors and donors on the hook while shrinking the bill for families and the taxpayers.
Finally, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education just recommended a 1.4 percent cap to tuition increases over the next two school years; nine out of the state’s 16 public colleges adhered to the ICHE’s previous recommendation.
In 2013 alone, Indiana raised $225 million from Hoosier Lottery. Tennessee Promise cost $25 million and provided tuition for more than 23,000 students in its most recent fiscal year.
At a cost of just over $1,000 per student, we could take a page out of Tennessee’s book and take the first step, making community college tuition-free for thousands of Hoosiers using just a sliver of our lottery proceeds.
If Indiana is to compete on the world economic stage, it is imperative we attract and retain young talent in our state. That means making our world-class institutions more affordable.
We want the next generation of leaders to experience firsthand the natural beauty of Bloomington, the vibrancy of Indianapolis or the hallowed legacy of Notre Dame.
The byzantine, punishing process of paying for college in this country has got to change. It is up to the people to demand institutions and political leaders address this crisis.