Debtors’ Prison

May 7, 2015

Inside Insight

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VALUE DOWN, COSTS UP

So many penetrating criticisms have been leveled at American higher education in recent years that the whole subject has become tedious. But since the higher education establishment exhibits no inclination to change, we press on.

In essence, these criticisms can be reduced to one simple observation: As the intrinsic quality and practical value of college degrees has gone down, the price has gone up. Way up.

That’s true at private and public colleges and universities alike. Indeed, whether there is such a thing as a truly private college or university is a question worth asking: these private institutions’ budgets are so full of state and federal money – government-backed loans, government-backed scholarships, federal grants – that it’s almost misleading to call them “private.”

Still, it’s one thing for a college that isn’t propped up by direct state appropriations to charge what it wants for tuition. It’s quite another for state institutions to do so. South Carolinian taxpayers in their late 40s or 50s have been sending money to these schools all their working lives, and now, when it’s time to send their own kids to be Gamecocks or Tigers or Cougars, they realize that it’s all but impossible to pay the bills. Indeed, tuition at South Carolina’s state colleges and universities has risen far faster than inflation over the last two decades, and at some of these schools tuition has more than doubled in just a decade.

All this while the quality of instruction has declined, and when a bachelor’s degree in the marketplace has become almost pointless without a graduate degree to top it off.

The only option for many young Americans – and many South Carolinians – is to take out loans.

The result is sadly predictable. This, for instance, is from a 2011 study by the South Carolina Policy Council and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni: “The Institute for College Access & Success reports that in 2009, 71% of Coastal [Carolina University] graduates borrowed money to pay for school. The average student left college with educational debt of $26,646; likewise, students at the Columbia campus of the University of South Carolina incurred an average of $21,755 in det, while the average Clemson University graduate left college with $18,463 in debt. The statewide debt average of $22,277 in 2009, while close t the median to that in other states, was over 54% of the median household income in South Carolina.”

Where, one wonders, are you likely to go with a debt load of $26,000 and a degree from Coastal Carolina?

Meanwhile, South Carolina’s public colleges are doing their part to keep the construction industry in the black. In Columbia, you can hardly drive anywhere near downtown without encountering a detour or a traffic hold-up owing to the construction of a new university building. Just now, for example, a new law school is going up on Gervais Street, there is a new business school on Assembly Street, something university-related (we’re not sure what) is going up next to the School of Public Health, and everywhere streets are cordoned off as a result of refurbishments of and additions to university buildings.

But at least our college graduates will be well prepared for life, right? If only.

The Nerve