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Keeping the costs of college in check

One Cent's Worth
By ZACK ANCHORS  |  October 3, 2014

Despite the protests of students, the University of Maine System appears destined for ever more austerity. The Students for #USMFuture movement won an impressive victory last spring when they pressured administrators into reversing a round of faculty layoffs, but now the school is moving forward with a plan to eliminate three academic programs. And that’s likely just the start. University of Maine System Chancellor James Page warned last week to expect much more severe cuts throughout the system soon.

It’s safe to assume that when all the cost-cutting and streamlining is done, Maine’s public universities will have less to offer students. After all, it’s pretty clear that measures like replacing full-time faculty with part-time instructors and eliminating academic programs lower the quality of education and result in fewer academic opportunities.

So if students are receiving less, wouldn’t it make sense for them to pay less too? Maybe, but that’s not the way things work in a country where the cost of college has been rising far faster than inflation for more than 30 years. It’s well known that health care costs have been out of control too, but between 1980 and 2010 the cost of college rose twice as fast as medical care. Meanwhile, the average worker’s wages barely budged and salaries for university administrators soared.

And that provides the backdrop for a new report on student loan debt in Maine released last week by the Alliance for a Just Society and the Maine People’s Alliance. Students graduating from college in Maine, the report reveals, carry an average of $29,352 in student loan debt. And the struggle to cope with such enormous debt creates enormous challenges for many graduates, the report shows. Countless grads get caught in the cycle of working shitty low-wage jobs to make high monthly payments, leaving them unable to take the risks and make the investments needed to build the career and lifestyle they originally went to college to pursue. 

To sum up the situation: Students are asked to take on devastating levels of debt to pay for soaring college costs while universities strip down academic programs and give administrators raises.

History shows that it doesn’t need to be this way. College was fairly cheap until the 1970s and there’s no reason why it couldn’t be once again. Here’s a look at what needs to change for that to happen.

>> Increase public funding. State funding for Maine’s higher education system dropped more than 13 percent between 2008 and 2014, continuing a decades-long, nationwide trend of dwindling public investment in universities. Schools know that students can borrow as much money as necessary to pay for tuition, so there’s nothing to prevent them from raising tuition to make up for declining funding.  

>> Get rid of the frills. A major driver of rising college costs is the competition among universities to lure students with extravagant facilities and services that make campuses feel more like shopping malls and resorts than institutions of higher learning. Why not build campuses that attract the sort of students who are drawn to engaging professors and serious scholarship than cable in dorm rooms and oversized stadiums?

>> Wean the system off credit. Just as the housing bubble that popped in 2007 was created by predatory lending and vast levels of uninformed borrowing, the ease with which students can borrow enormous sums at high interest rates is a major cause of rising tuition. A college education should be accessible to everyone, but borrowing should not be so easy upfront. 

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