At 20 years old, Anastaysia Thomas has dreams of traveling to new places and working as a world-class massage therapist. Her plan is as foolproof as anyone's: get into a good school and work like crazy until things fall into place. She juggles a full-time load of college classes and more than 30 hours a week waitressing at a local pub in Hampton, Va., working hard toward reaching her goals. But next fall, she will graduate with 80 percent of her tuition left to pay and no guarantee of a job.
This year - when the cost of attending a public college can top $20k a year, $50k for private universities - two out of three students graduated with college debt averaging $25,250. The total outstanding student loan debt in the country exceeds $1 trillion - more than Americans owe in credit card or car loan debt.
The problem of student debt is crippling the country - students, parents and inevitably the American family. But if debt is the symptom, rising tuition is the disease.
Tuition is rising so fast that most can't put it into proper context, Dr. Andrew Gillen said during a recent conference on college debt hosted by the Family Research Council. Gillen and other experts labeled the nation's growing college debt as the symptom of a disease built into the structure of higher education. The only way to lower tuition, and by extension debt, is to give students an accurate way to evaluate the product colleges sell--their education.
If the price of one pound of ground chuck in 1980 rose at the same rate as tuition, it would cost $13 today. We wouldn't consider paying that much for ground beef, Gillen said. But we don't even question paying the increase in college tuition.
Gillen, senior researcher at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, has spent his career researching college affordability. Colleges often blame rising tuition on the need to make up for reduced state and federal funding and rising faculty salaries. But tuition rises every year, even when costs remain stable, he said. The real driving force behind rising tuition is the perceived need for colleges to compete based on reputation. They build their reputation by spending money, which gives the incentive to raise as much money as they can, inviting a continual increase of tuition.
For evidence, Gillen pointed to the fact that tuition rises every year, regardless of what else happens. And frequently, tuition is higher than the actual cost of providing the education. Most colleges offer many large lecture classes in their undergraduate programs and law programs - 250 students to one professor. These are "cash cows" for universities, Gillen said, costing the school about $60 a year, while the student pays hundreds or thousands of dollars to take the class.
The core of the problem is a lack of any measure of the quality of education a college provides. Colleges do not compete on the actual value of the product they offer--the quality of the education they provide divided by price.
"We can't tell you, if you go to the University of Phoenix, that you're going to learn more or less than if you go to Harvard," Gillen said. "We have no idea."
Instead of actual value, colleges compete based on their perceived quality, or reputation. The best way for a college to boost its reputation is to spend more money--bring in star faculty, recruit better students, and build better facilities.
Reputation is so important to universities that they manipulate their budgets to help them place well in college rankings, like the U.S. News and World Report's annual list. Often, they do not spend money with the direct goal of improving the quality of the education they provide. Sometimes, reputation is so important that colleges lie to place higher in the ranks, even when college rankings are criticized for validity and subjectivity (see previous report by WORLD on Campus).
Even recent innovation in higher education is crippled by reputation-based competition. New education alternatives aiming to provide a degree for a fraction of the price - like online education and community college workforce development programs - can't prove their value because there's no solid way to compare the quality of their programs with traditional colleges.
The solution is to get colleges to provide a high level of information on educational quality, Gillen said. With enough information to assess the value of education at different colleges, students and their families will gravitate toward choosing a program based on what is it worth to them. Competition will naturally shift to who can provide the highest value, giving universities the incentive to find lower cost options and enhance their educational quality. Then, reputation will align itself to value as well.
Public policy can be a catalyst to this natural shift, Gillen said, by measuring and publicizing educational quality: how much students learn at each institution, the passing rates for graduates who take certification or professional exams, and labor market outcomes like job placement rates and distribution of earnings.
"We want to provide people with the information they need to make their own choices, their own value-based decisions," Gillen said.
Thomas based her choice to attend Centura College on the recommendation her advisers and instructors give its massage therapy program. It was the only information she had to go on. But right now, it feels like a risk because she has no way of knowing whether the investment will be worth it.
"I don't have time to save up for the future because I'm always making a payment," Thomas said. "I just have to hope that when I graduate, the education is enough for me to get a better-paying job to knock out the debt."