Weighing the Costs of Higher Education

    Fifty thousand dollars.

    That’s the bill I’m looking at six months after graduation, when the deferment period for my student loans ends. And frankly, it’s a terrifying prospect. This is debt that has accumulated despite scholarships, despite working multiple jobs, despite having a tight budget. At the same time as degrees become more important in the job market, they also are becoming far less affordable.

    In fact, college costs have increased rapidly across the country over in the last decade, with students paying 42 percent more for tuition in 2005 than they paid in 2000, a rate that far outpaces the rate of inflation. But as college costs have increased, financial aid has decreased. In 1975, the average Pell Grant covered nearly 84 percent of the cost of college; today, the average only covers 36 percent. This means that for many students, loans are quickly becoming necessary to pay for college. According to separate analyses by the American Council on Education and the College Board, close to two-thirds of loans students take out are for bachelor’s degrees, averaging a debt of more than $15,000 each. At UCSD, the rate is slightly lower, with 54 percent of UCSD undergraduates taking out federal or private loans.

    Unfortunately, even these are becoming more costly, as the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 recently increased the rates for the federal Stafford loan.

    But is a bachelor’s degree even enough? According to a Capitol Hill testimony by James Merisotis, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, 87 percent of Americans think that a high school graduate should continue onto college instead of starting a job. With so many people bent on getting a bachelor’s degree, such a degree no longer becomes remarkable on resumes­ — it becomes required.

    And, according to White House economists, wage stagnation is hitting people with bachelor’s degrees for the first time in 30 years, despite the fact that the nation is growing economically. Starting pay is especially low for humanities degrees like mine, with salaries for English majors declining by 4.1 percent last year.

    It’s not as if this is a temporary setback either; wage erosion is expected to continue as the number of college graduates rises in China, India and other offshore hubs. It’s obvious that a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough to ensure a good job anymore.

    But at the same time, I’m forced to ask myself this question: Can I afford to go even further into this hole in order to get a graduate degree?

    In many ways I’m lucky; at least I have a parent who is able to co-sign on my loans. But for many low-income families, even these loans are outside of their reach.

    Several recent reports have criticized the fact that, despite the perception of progress, gaps between college-attending low- and high-income students are actually wider than they were 30 years ago. The Advisory Committee of Student Financial Assistance argues that 1.4 million to 2.4 million bachelor’s degrees will be lost this decade as “financial concerns prevent academically qualified students from the lowest income bracket from attending college.” According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 75 percent of qualified high-income students enter college today, while only 31 percent of low-income students do. This essentially means that students with the highest test scores in the lowest socioeconomic group attend college at the same rate as students with the lowest test scores from the highest socioeconomic group. It’s terribly ironic that education, often viewed as a ticket out of poverty, is being denied to those who most need it.

    With federal funding for education falling, it’s not likely that these trends will be turned around anytime soon. The conversation is only barely entering the national agenda, with efforts like U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ hopefully being the first of many. Even if the situation does change, it’s not likely to affect me or anyone else who is currently in school. Instead, recent and future UCSD graduates face increasing pressure to compete for a declining number of high-paying jobs without having the luxury of a leisurely job search. I know I don’t have the time to waste, not with my loan payment schedule hanging ominously over my head. Gone are the hopes of travel, or of having space and time to adjust to the real world.

    A real world that, for me, is approaching all too quickly.

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