More Americans than ever are attending college, but without adequate public funding many of those students and their families have had to take paying for higher education into their own hands.
Year after year millions of students sign up for school all accross the country and in doing so agree to foot the price tag, which for an “affordable” school will still be $10,000+ a year in tuition alone. For some of the nation’s elite institutions that number can be as high as $60,000. And again, that’s just tuition. Those price tags don’t say anything about the cost of living, health care, or any other expenses a student may run into. For many families there simply isn’t enough aid to go around, there isn’t enough in their savings account, and the prices are too high.
Lucky for them though there are plenty of options for student loans, whether private or through the government they are available. For most students covering the costs of higher education is only possible through student loans.
So it’s no wonder student loan debt has increased by 828% since 1999.
More so than any other industry built on selling people credit, the student loan industry has blossomed in the last few decades. Overall household debt has only increased by 105%. American car loan debt has only increased 137.2%, despite being in the midst of a historic trend in subprime car loans. Mortgage debt has only increased 99%, credit card debt by 23.6%, and “other forms of debt” have only increased by 40.3%. All of the data comes from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Center for Microeconomic Data and it shows a stunning trend in student borrowing.
The growth in student loans is insane when compared to any other line of credit and it begs the question, what makes student loans so special? It’s actually pretty simple. The fact is this increase in student loan debt is a perfect representation of a few issues endemic to American higher education. Specifically shifting the economic burden of higher education to the shoulders of the individual instead of robust collective funding. It’s also a product of the financialization of American higher education.
For decades there was no robust source of individual funding or student loans, so higher education costs were largely funded by individuals who could afford every step of the process. Many people relied on GI Bills but tuitions had to remain low in order to remain competitive among people who had to fund their own education without loans or subsidies.
For example looking at how many hours of minimum wage work it would take to fund an education at an Ivy League institution shows just how radically funding higher education has changed in the last few decades. It must be noted that all of these numbers have included inflation. Also, dollar for dollar, just looking at inflation, minimum wage was lower in 1955 than in 2017. So the massive increase in minimum wage hours worked to fund an elite higher education are mostly a product of rising tuition and not so much a product of the minimum wage. The number of minimum wage hours worked required to fund a university education is insane.
In 1955 tuition at University of Pennsylvania, was $800 a year, which in 2017 dollars comes out to $7,165. Today the tuition fees alone at University of Pennsylvania are astronomically higher at $69,340. At 1955 numbers it was possible to work, save, and pay for an individual education without any credit. Difficult maybe, required a lot of planning, for sure, but ultimately it was possible. In 2017 that is simply not the case. Minimum wage in 1955 was .75 cents, in theory, not accounting for the cost of living, it would take just over 530 hour of minimum wage work to cover tuition and fees. In 2017 if tuition was equal with 1955 tuition inflation included, it would only take 494 hours of minimum wage work to cover tuition. Which is fairly reasonable, but using the actual tuition of $69,340, not the inflated 1955 tuition of $7,165, it would take 9,564 hours of minimum wage work.
Just to reiterate those numbers in days, all numbers accounting for the inflation, it would take just over 44 days of minimum wage work to cover tuition at University of Pennsylvania in 1955. In 2017 it would take 399 days of minimum wage work to cover tuition.
Once more, in 1955, 44 days, in 2017, 399 days.
That right there is one reason student loan debt has increased so astronomically, but tuition and fees didn’t begin to skyrocket until the 1980s. Even then increases throughout the 80’s and 90’s were modest when compared to today. In 1980 it would have only taken 80 days of minimum wage work to cover tuition at Penn, almost double that of 1955, but significantly less than 2017. In 1990 that number had increased to 147 days worth of minimum wage work. Up 300% from 1955 but still more than 150% less than 2017. By 1990 the writing was on the wall and increases in the amount of money required to fund a higher education reliably occurred annually.
In 2000 it would take 183 days of minimum wage work to cover tuition at Penn. That number would increase over 100% by 2017, a much faster rise than decades past. In the 1980’s and 90’s it was increasingly unrealistic to work through college and personally fund an education, but it was still possible for some, by 2017 that is completely untenable. In a time where a college education is more important than ever, acquiring credit to do so is a requirement for upward mobility. Something Universities should be held responsible for because they have decided that in order to compete with one another they need an ever increasing pot of money to work with each year.
Which means as state and national education funds shrink, the bills individual students shoulder grow, and usually to shoulder those bills a lot of students must take on significant sums of student loan debt. All to fund the ever growing financial pursuits of universities around the country.
Universities have become financial institutions, bent on growth and profit. Obtaining more students and more specifically the tuition and fees they represent, is the ultimate goal. Most modern universities will do almost anything to further that goal.
They build state of the art recreation centers, among other things, to attract students while refusing to grant tenure and shifting teaching resources to grad students and underpaid adjuncts. They hire teams of consultants to help build their brand while graduation rates and educational outcomes are seemingly given far less thought. Some schools pour the lion’s share of their resources into sports teams despite operating at a significant loss sheerly for the marketing they provide. Administrators and football coaches are oftentimes some of the highest paid people in a state oftentimes in states that reliably cut education budgets year after year. All of this justified through profits the institution can create.
Other universities, specifically powerhouse big money institutions like Harvard, Yale, or Stanford, pour their endowment money into hedge funds, in order to squeeze out the highest financial returns possible with little concern for the growing gap in attainment of status experienced by people privileged enough to walk the halls of those institutions and the rest of the population. A gap they could probably help bridge if some of that endowment money was spent on human capital instead of hedge funds bent on returning the most financial capital.
All of these endeavors represent a big trend for modern universities that are forced to justify their existance year after year and choose to do so through increased profits. Profits which are ultimately built on the backs of students and the tuition they pay, which for millions of students isn’t actually “paid” at all, it’s borrowed. Student debt hasn’t increased by 828% since 1999 on accident, it’s increased because schools and administrators realize they can make up for lackluster funding by shifting costs to students who have government and private loans at their disposal.
This trend has blown up in the last few decades and unfortunately it doesn’t seem like it will slow down anytime soon. Student debt will continue to fund the various pursuits of universities bent on providing the best education, or sometimes just the flashiest, while staying as profitable as possible. Until that stops, the idea that a higher education could be funded through minimum wage work once again will remain fairly laughable.
Load More Related Articles
Load More In Politics & Policy