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Soaring College Costs Prompt Concern From Students, Economists

  • Jim Randle

Washington's Republicans and Democrats are haggling over how to finance higher education, including details like the interest rates that students pay for loans. Recent graduates, who are burdened with an average of $26,000 in loans, are watching the debate closely. But some economists say the real issue is controlling the soaring cost of college at a time when post-secondary schooling is crucial to getting a good job and a middle class salary. Experts say these high costs are hurting the whole economy, not just students and their families.

Joshua Jordan earned a doctorate degree in physical therapy. He hopes to open his own practice someday, and says having the expensive graduate degree is good for his patients - but hard on his wallet.

“I am currently in debt for $210,000,” he said.

Jordan's loans are eight times larger than those of the average student. He says it might take him 20 years to pay them off, and he sometimes has had to work two jobs concurrently to meet his bills.

For the past 30 years, college tuition has been going up at twice the rate of inflation, and private colleges now charge an average of more than $30,000 a year.

Universities say they're caught between record-high enrollments, a workforce of professors who have the skills to find work elsewhere if they are not well paid, and falling financial support from state governments.

Terry Hartle speaks for The American Council on Education which represents thousands of colleges and universities across the United States.

"It’s a terrible conundrum that we face as a country. We want more and more post-secondary education. We want more focus on academic quality and graduation. At the same time, the funding sources for higher education have been diminishing for a generation," said Hartle.

While these students made it to graduation, experts worry the high cost of college makes it less likely that bright students from poor families will attend college, depriving the economy of some of the scientists, engineers and others who could help boost growth.

And a survey shows that some students concerned about repaying thousands of dollars in loans are putting off marriage, children, and the major purchases that usually go along with forming a family.

Peter Mazareas, who is with the College Savings Foundation, said, "These students will not contribute to the economy. They will go home and live at home. They won't buy cars. They won't invest in housing, so there is a real multiplier effect that is short term."

Georgetown University Labor Economist Anthony Carnevale said the current system is unsustainable for families and cuts economic growth for the whole country.

"The effects on economic growth [of failing to produce post secondary talent] are substantial. If we had kept up with demand for post secondary talent, economists estimate that we would be at about $500 billion more per year in gross domestic product, that is people would have more money to spend. There would have been a higher productivity rate," said Carnevale.

Meanwhile, Jordan said his family is not wealthy and could not have paid for so many years in so many colleges on the way to a PhD.

“There would have been no way I could have created a career for myself that I wanted to do without the use of student loans,” he said.

So for him, it is worth it.