By Jacob Solis
As students swarm the University of Nevada, Reno’s campus for the first time this new year, they’ll have to worry about more than just grades. Students will have to think carefully about the amount of classes they can take as the cost of college — and the loans that pay for it — are piling up more than ever before.
Across the country, the cost of a college education has been skyrocketing and more and more students have been increasingly forced to rely on scholarships and other financial aid to simply cover the cost of attendance. It’s a reality that’s now stuck in the American psyche as student loans have officially become America’s largest source of debt.
As of now, student loan debt for every student in America totals $1.2 trillion, according to the New York Fed. About 70 percent of students have taken on some kind of debt in order to pay for college and the class of 2015 was recently heralded as the most indebted ever.
But just how are the costs rising and why? What does it mean for the students who attend college, who gets stuck with the bill and who, if anyone, is looking to change the status quo?
A numbers game
The numbers paint a clear picture.
The Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics pegs the average cost of tuition and fees at public institutions at just under $7,000 in 1982, adjusted for inflation. By 2012, that number would rise 116 percent to $15,000, and one-third of that change came in the last decade alone. At private schools, the jump was similar, moving 111 percent from just above $16,000 to about $34,400 in the same amount of time.
Simultaneously, inflation has been at its lowest points in years.
The U.S. government measures inflation by looking at what’s called a market basket, or some hypothetical shopping cart filled with what the average consumer buys, and seeing how much the price of each item in that basket changes over time.
In the 1970s, inflation was rising at record rates — 10 or 12 percent a year. These numbers had never been seen before and meant prices for everything, including education, rose with a rapidity that turned economists pale with fear. However, as the ’70s faded and the Federal Reserve became more aggressive in its monetary policy, inflation cooled off, dropping to an average of just 3.2 percent between 1982 and 2009.
Meanwhile, the cost of higher education would keep increasing. Since 1982, the inflation of all items, looked at as an annual percentage, would never touch the inflation in the cost of higher education.
Even so, the cost increases vary widely from state to state and from institution to institution, making the data tough to generalize. In short, not all increases are created equal. For instance, Nevada’s increases of 16 and 8 percent in 2014 and 2011, respectively, are relatively mild compared to 80 percent in Arizona, 66 percent in Georgia and Florida, and 62 percent in California, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Hitting students hard
For president of UNR’s Young Democrats, Taslima Shams, the continued increases are unacceptable. She was angered especially by the debt that education engenders, bemoaning being on what she called “The Walking Debt.” Shams was equally upset with a pervasive apathy among students, many of whom feel that the cost problem is not one they can solve nor one that necessarily should be solved.
“Economically speaking, conservatives are much more likely to think, ‘OK, nothing comes free,’” Shams said. “Many students will say, ‘No, we don’t support [free tuition] because it’s going to make [college] free,’ but at the same time they don’t understand that they’re one of those students who are in debt, they are the ones in the ‘Game of Loans,’ so why not support it?”
Shams joined some of her peers at a November rally, the Million Student March, on the UNR campus that was part of a national effort to bring awareness to the high cost of college. While some of the other rallies around the country brought thousands of students to the streets, UNR’s own rally brought less than 50. It was a number that disappointed student and demonstrator Jose Olivares.
“It’s disappointing to see how a lot of university students are just walking by even though it’s something that directly affects them,” Olivares said. “There seems to be this really disappointing sense of apathy towards it. A lot of people maybe think that nothing can get changed anymore and nothing’s ever going to change, that doing these direct actions isn’t going to do anything.”
It’s an apathy that seems to stretch beyond UNR, however, and it’s an apathy that doesn’t seem likely to change all that soon. During the demonstration, a lone heckler from a railing called out, “No one cares.”
It turns out that that heckler may have been on to something.
How did we get here?
Those in charge of the institutions and elsewhere provide a number of different answers as to why this has happened, exemplifying the tangled nature of the problem. However, the most common answer thrown around by regents and observers alike is that cuts in state funding have forced tuition hikes on the institutional level.
Across the country, the raw data seem to back up this theory. According to a 2014 report from the nonpartisan CBPP, 48 states were spending less on higher education than they had before the Great Recession.
And in Nevada, it was the exact reasoning made by the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents just over a year ago when its tuition increase was approved. That specific motion, which passed 7-6, was pushed largely because regents were skeptical that the state would ever replenish funds that had been cut in 2007.
“We cannot realistically expect the Legislature to fund enhanced medical education and a Tier 1 effort if we don’t take responsibility for our own future,” said regent Michael Wixom in a 2014 interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Even so, some remain unconvinced. The Guinn Center for Policy Priorities expressed concern that a hike in tuition would hurt the overall economy and exacerbate Nevada’s already low college attainment numbers and turn prospective students away from college in general.
Who’s trying to change it?
The cost has become a central issue for the Democratic candidates for the presidency, though the issue hasn’t caught on among the leading Republicans.
Hillary Clinton, who currently sits at the top of nearly every poll, has devised what she calls “the new college compact.” The plan would reduce tuition costs and make community college free while allowing graduated students to refinance loans already taken out. When all is said and done, the plan is set to cost about $350 million.
“The fact is, [student loan debt] is holding back the economy and it’s holding back individuals from getting on with their working lives,” Clinton said during a November campaign stop in Reno.
While many of Clinton’s supporters stand behind the plan, many students have said that her plan doesn’t go far enough.
Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has proposed an alternative plan that would make all public universities free by levying additional taxes on Wall Street in addition to loan refinancing, and a cut on current interest rates. While arguably a more popular plan with American students, many conservatives have balked at the price tag, which CNN Money calculated out to be roughly $750 billion over 10 years.
On the other side of the aisle, only Ohio Gov. John Kasich has proposed some changes in the form of a student debt relief fund. However, no other candidate in the Republican field has made the issue a focal point.
Regardless of candidate attention, education sits among voters’ top priorities according to Google trends, which put education second in a list of the most-searched campaign issues as of Jan. 17.
The outlook remains grim
In any case, students and parents will likely have to wait until 2017 before some change, if any change at all makes its way to the system. Until then, the cost of education will continue to rise.
For America’s college students, the future grows dimmer by the year.
Jacob Solis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.