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FastWeb Column: How Much Should College Cost?

This story was published in 2006 for FastWeb, an online education resource and scholarship search engine.

Last week, a friend and fellow writer had problems finding a captivating intro to his article.

“Write about toothpaste,” I said helpfully.
He looked at me.
I shrugged, “Hey, everybody’s got teeth.”

The fact is, not everyone has teeth. But I think everyone — at some point or another — has money. I have about as much of the sweet stuff as, oh, Mother Theresa, but even a student journalist can chance upon the occasional change. Which brings me to this week’s two-part question: How much should college cost and who should pay for it?

According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, tuition is rising at more than twice the rate of inflation. A year’s tuition at a private college now costs an average of $21,000. That means if you don’t qualify for financial aid and haven’t won a scholarship, you could graduate $84,000 in debt. Just think! That $84,000 is enough to buy 280 iPods, one for each resident of the Aleutian Islands, give or take a few. (I don’t want to offend any Aleuts in my reading audience — the actual area population is about 8,000.)

The justification for an expensive degree is that it will ultimately pay off. Shelling out $45,000 a year for a Harvard diploma is supposed to get you a sought-after job in your field and connections out the wazoo. Well I say, wazoo schmazoo.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but one of the principles of free-market economy is that competition controls and lowers prices. Having choices isn’t our problem; I would say the number of colleges in America is rivaled only by the number of whitening toothpastes. (Most people have teeth. It’s relevant.) Competition isn’t controlling costs, and colleges are charging whatever they want us to pay. OPEC is more price-responsive to its market than private four-year colleges are to their degree guzzlers.

So why can’t we keep costs down?

Many students are more concerned with how we’ll pay instead of how much we’ll pay. We worry about who licks their thumb and peels off another bill. There are usually two options: you or your folks. Perhaps your ‘rents should pay your rent. They’ve funded you most of your life already. Besides, don’t they want you to get the full, fancy-free experience?

Or maybe college, when most kids turn 18 and 21, is exactly the time to take over the financial responsibilities.

I think the government should cap how much private institutions charge. We have national policies to limit drug and medical expenses; why not education?

I’d also like the higher-ups to lend a hand with everyone’s education. Think about it. The feds pay for me to attend college. My degree helps me qualify for a higher salary and the higher salary means I pay more in taxes. In theory, if the government helped more Americans get college degrees, it’d get more money back. This is essentially what the GI Bill did for WWII veterans, and it helped establish an educated middle class that has paid back America a hundred times over.

I don’t know much about economics, but I’m familiar with the cost of college. And if we don’t start talking about it now, my children’s education will cost their weight in gold.

Gold teeth, that is.

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