Striped Whistlers*

This last weekend, the Times ran a story about a student who graduated from Ohio Northern University with loans and debt totaling $120,000.  The young woman was working two waitressing jobs and her mother, who co-signed the loans, had taken out a life insurance policy on her daughter just in case something happened and she had to eat that debt.

The story also featured some eye-opening data about student loan debt and some disturbing trends.  For example, 45 percent of students borrowed to finance their education in 1980.  Today, 94 percent are taking out loans.

Far be it from me to dismiss the high cost of higher education, but the "sky is falling" tone of these articles (there have been several of late) belie the truth that it's still possible in this country to get a degree without encumbering yourself with insurmountable debt. 

As the Times article pointed out, fewer than 3 percent of students borrow more than $100,000 and the average debt is $23,500.  That's still a lot of money, but at my institution the average debt is around $15,000, which is less than the average for my state's three public universities.   In other words, there are places where you can still earn a four-year degree while owing about the cost of a Honda Civic.  Not so bad when you put it in perspective.

And although it's not popular to say it, a lot of the blame for the high cost of education can be attributed to the consumers of the product, who have come to expect private en suite rooms, state of the art workout facilities, fully-wired high tech campuses and full service dining halls complete with vegan options.  Moreover, the debt explosion has been compounded by the defunding of state aid programs and the entry into the market of politically-connected for-profit institutions that entice marginal and unsavvy students to run up obscene amounts of debt.  Lots of little non-profit colleges like mine are good stewards.  We still offer good degrees at a reasonable cost.

So is college expensive?  Yes, there's no denying that.  Is it still possible to get an affordable private college education?  Yes, but you would hardly know it from all the hand wringing going on out there.

* Midwestern slang for farmers in bibbed overalls who let out surprised whistles whenever glancing at a price tag.


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