Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Cost of College

I’ve been living a lie.

Took me over forty years to realize it.

What was once very much a sense of pride is now gone.

But there’s a longer story involved, which I’ll relate before getting to the punch line.

I started college in 1974. My plan had been to follow my older brother’s lead and attend General Motors Institute in Flint, Michigan. That was a co-op program where you went to school half time and worked at GM the rest, working to pay for college. But I was not successful at being accepted at GMI, which led me to Wright State University, which I’ve been forever grateful. I worked twenty hours a week when in school and forty hours a week when not. I made enough to pay my tuition, buy my books and have a little left over for a pizza or a movie with my girlfriend. I didn’t do drugs, didn’t drink and party, and never had a fake driver’s license. Why waste these years self-destructing and not taking full advantage of learning cool stuff. That all seemed very natural to me.

My son considered college in the 1990’s, so I ran the math again. The twenty/forty work and tuition equation still worked. He could pay his way through if he wanted. It wasn’t his lack of work ethic that led him away from college. He’s one of the hardest working people I know and I’m very proud of him for that. And even more proud that he’s a really good person and owns his own business.

There’s been a lot of press lately around the cost of education and the piles of student debt being accumulated by young adults. This isn’t just kids that go to Harvard or medical school. This is happening to average folks going to regular universities. So I decided to do the math once again. But this time all the 20/40 hard work doesn’t cover tuition and books, but about sixty percent, with nothing left over for pizza.

What happened? Has the cost of college in the last twenty years outstripped wage inflation that much? That’s part of the story, as universities have competed for students by offering tons of costly amenities. But the shocking part for state universities like WSU is the dropping level of state funding. In my college days, state funding accounted for about 75% of their budget, with tuitions like mine making up the remaining 25%. Restore that funding and the equation not only works again, but you can occasionally take your girlfriend to a nice restaurant, the kind with cloth napkins. Perhaps that’s how state funding should be determined. Those that work hard should be able to go through a state university debt-free. That’s not the path everyone would have to take and it would be their decision to either “work now” or “pay later”.   

I now know I didn’t pay for college. That’s the punch line. Thanks mostly to the taxpayers, I received a quality education and was not racked with debt at the end of it. Many thanks to my parents who allowed me to live at home, fed me and paid for my car insurance. And a girlfriend that liked a simple pizza.

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