Failing Grade

The Real College Crisis Isn’t About Student Loan Rates

While the Senate squabbles over the interest rates on student loans, critics say they’re missing the real point.

Senators sparred Wednesday over whether and how to subsidize federal loans for college students, whose total debt load has tripled in the last eight years. But missing in the tug of war over the “Keeping Student Loans Affordable Act" was any significant debate over how to keep the skyrocketing price of college affordable for parents and students.

In the end, Republicans filibustered a bill that would have cut the 6.8 percent rate for federal subsidized loans back to 3.6 percent for one year. Experts in higher education say that by focusing on making borrowing cheap, while public grant money dries up and student-loan debt balloons past $1 trillion, Congress is missing the point altogether.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, an associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, calls the student loan debate “the tip of the iceberg” of a looming crisis in higher education that Congress seems decades away from addressing.

“I love that people are getting upset, because it’s amazing how long people have not paid attention to this problem,” she said. “But I'm sad at how misdirected the attention is.” Goldrick-Rab said driving down the price to attend college, not making it easier to finance massive tuitions, should be the focus of the debate in Washington. She testified to the Senate in April that many college campuses have become “glorified summer camps,” made downright luxurious in many cases by universities engaging in an arms race to have the most impressive bells and whistles for prospective students, parents, and college-ranking publications.

“We are paying through the nose for prestige,” Goldrick-Rab said. “And colleges are finding that the more you charge, the more people want it and are willing to pay for it.”

Prestige on college campuses comes in many packages. In some cases, it’s Division I sports teams, the majority of which are subsidized by student fees and general school funds. In other cases prestige comes in the form of well-known tenured professors, some of whom Goldrick-Rab said may teach one class a year while part-time, low-salaried instructors pick up the extra teaching load. The average full professor’s compensation at American schools last year was $134,000, up about 2 percent from 2011, although many made significantly more.

Colleges are also shelling out record amounts to their presidents, whose median compensation at public research universities went up 4.7 percent last year to $441,392. The top dollar for a sitting public school president went to Auburn University’s Jay Gogue, who made $2.5 million in total compensation, a figure that would be nearly 20 times the salary for the governor of Alabama—if the governor had not pledged to forgo his salary until unemployment in the state improves. The Auburn trustees who approved Gogue’s salary also recently voted to increase next year's student tuition by 4.5 percent, on top of an 8 percent increase last year and a 13 percent increase in 2010.

And not to be forgotten in the prestige arms race are the buildings and amenities, even at public institutions, that would give any country club a run for its money. Looking for a rec center with an acre of cardio and weight machines like the ones used at the Beijing Olympics? Then UMass Amherst could be the school for you. The aquatic enthusiast should head to the University of Cincinnati, whose rec center promises "850,000 gallons of fun," with three indoor pools, a vortex, a bubble couch (whatever that is), and a current channel for those "looking for an upstream workout.” The University of Iowa’s $72 million rec center also has a vortex, a massive climbing wall, 72 tread mills with TVs, a 25-person hot tub, and a “club level” locker room with a biometric hand scanner for extra security.

All of this prestige and perks don’t come cheap, but the money to pay the ballooning cost of attending these colleges does. And that’s the problem.

George Cornelius, a former CEO and college president who now writes the education blog Finding My College, said he sees the federal government as an enabler for the runaway cost of education in America, where average tuition at public four-year colleges has jumped 42 percent in the last five years as state and local funding has been slashed and colleges simply shift the extra expense on to students.

“My frustration is almost ‘Who cares?’ That’s not the point, whether the rate is 3 percent or 6.8 percent. It’s the principle that’s the problem,” Cornelius said. “The more money you throw at it, the more it will go up, I guarantee you. No matter how much you give, it will never be enough.”

Cornelius said that in order to cut costs, colleges need to improve their financial management and start making difficult choices that they’ve put off for years, including trimming bloated administrations, eliminating undersubscribed majors, cutting sports programs that cost too much money, or reducing generous employee benefits.

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“The fundamental problem is the inability or unwillingness of colleges to control their costs and manage their costs,” Cornelius said. “Some are trying, but it's tough. You run into constituencies. There have been cuts at some schools. The tough choices don't get made until there’s a crisis.”

Donna Desrochers, the principal researcher with the Delta Cost Project at the American Institutes for Research, says that the cost to students shows no signs of slowing down as shrinking state budgets have meant that students’ tuition and fees now account for the majority of income to colleges and universities for the first time ever.

“In both public and private institutions, the burden is increasingly falling on students. We don’t expect that to change unless state and local appropriations magically come back,” Desrochers said. “But even when appropriations have reversed in the past, we did not see tuition go down. Colleges just took the extra money and spent it elsewhere.”

To start to reverse the trend, Goldrick-Rab says she would refocus federal money toward grants, rather than loans, and find a way to send federal money directly to universities instead of passing it through students, who have no power to exercise oversight on how the money is spent. “Right now we give schools so much revenue and we ask for nothing in return. I want to give the money to the schools because I want to keep the schools accountable.”

Congress will have a chance to look at that and other options next year, when the Higher Education Act, which created the student loan program, is up for reauthorization. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) has held four hearings so far about how to reform the entire system, and said Wednesday he wants “a comprehensive measure on college affordability.”

If the Senate debate is any example, finding an agreement on how to reduce the cost of college, not just the expense of borrowing money to get there, won’t be easy. But Cornelius said that something has to give soon.

“It’s very similar to housing loans in that the federal government is contributing to this by making it easy to borrow,” he said. “It's a bubble, but it's a different kind of bubble in the sense that it can't go on like this. Eventually you hit the wall."