Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
Worry is part of being a parent and it makes evolutionary sense. If cavemen and women didn't worry about predators gobbling up their infants, for example, they might let their children wander far from the safety of the family cave. If modern parents didn't worry about car accidents, they might not teach their children to buckle up.
Most of our parental worries turn out to be blessedly unfounded — the worry that our child will develop a serious illness, or connect with a pedophile on the internet, or get pregnant in high school. While worrying may not prevent these outcomes (and too much worry is sure to drive both our kids and ourselves crazy) a certain amount of parental concern helps keep us vigilant and involved.
Now that my kids are older, there's a worry I hear with increasing frequency: every parent I talk to wonders how they're going to pay for college. Even friends who are solidly middle class are concerned — not to mention those who are struggling financially.
Skyrocketing college costs and student debt
Unfortunately, this parental worry has a firm basis in reality, according to several recent articles in The New York Times. One article points out that growing numbers of kids are going deeply into debt to pay for college — total student debt has passed the $1 trillion mark — and economists fear the scope of the student debt crisis could rival the mortgage and credit crises. Many students enroll in high-priced colleges that are a stretch financially, but there have also been steady increases in tuition at state colleges and universities, putting these traditionally lower-cost institutions beyond the reach of families who've seen wages stagnate in recent years. A report by the nonprofit Education Trust, for example, found that for low income families, paying for a college education for a single child eats up 72 percent of annual income; for middle class families, college costs amount to 27 percent of annual income.
The second Times article chronicles the increase in overall college costs in recent years. Many colleges have engaged in an "arms race" of spending on new buildings and upgraded facilities to attract students. Eye-popping administrative costs are also an issue, as the article makes clear: Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee received a compensation package of $2 million this year, for example, and has reportedly billed the college for more than $550,000 in travel costs over the last two years. Meanwhile, tuition at Ohio State has gone up nearly 60 percent since 2002. The report offers some good news as well: some economists believe that college tuition costs have reached a tipping point, and that continued increases could affect enrollment. A growing number of college administrators, including the well compensated Dr. Gee, are beginning to look for other sources of funds — besides tuition hikes — to cover costs.
Good news on college costs?
There are also signs of relief from Washington. In recent speeches, for example, President Obama has talked about capping tuition hikes and college loan interest rates.
In the meantime, American parents will continue to worry about paying for college — but that could be a good thing, if it leads to positive change. And while the grown-ups fret, the kids are doing their part to shed light on the problem: across the country this graduation season, graduates are showing up at commencement ceremonies wearing inflatable balls and chains to protest the daunting cost of attending college.
Afterall, if something doesn't change our kids are the ones who are going to shoulder the worry — and the cost — when we're gone: according to a survey cited recently in the Huffington Post, college graduates today are likely to still owe more than $20,000 in loan debt by the time they're 45.