WASHINGTON – A diverse panel of higher education experts discussed one of the greatest challenges facing college students – the rising cost of their education.
Organized by Campus Progress,which “works to strengthen progressive voices on college and university campuses nationwide,” according to its Web site,the panel discussed problems in financing college,though it did not offer a remedy to the approximately 100 students in the audience.
Jennifer Pae,vice president of the United States Student Association,a student activist group,said that the $12.7 billion cut to student aid in February squeezes middle class students' wallets the most.
“Ten years from now,if we keep the track we've been going in,it's going to be even more difficult for students to not only get in,but be able to finish,” she said. “We want to make sure to stop that and make sure it doesn't continue on for years to come.”
Julie Radocchia,higher education specialist for Rep. George Miller,D-Calif.,said student loan interest rates should be cut in half,creating an average savings of $5,600.
“We need to be thinking about what's an appropriate cost of college,” she said.
But Rick Hess,director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute,a conservative think tank,called the U.S. higher education system an “incredible bargain.” He said the average loan burden at U.S. public universities is $15,400.
The average loan burden for students at Iowa State University was more than $27,000,the second-highest of any public institution in the country,according to a 2006 survey by U.S. News and World Report. Idaho State University ranked first. Thirty-seven percent of 2004 graduates left Iowa State with more than $30,000 in debt,according to university reports.
Hess said he wanted to “create a basically level playing field in which it is easy for everyone to get loans,” where interest rates will be higher to compensate for federal cuts in student aid.
“Loans will be relatively expensive to what they are now,” he said. “I’m not at all interested in subsidizing higher education.”
The cost of attending Iowa State has increased more than 87 percent since the 2000-01 school year,according to university and Iowa Board of Regents reports.
In June,the regents approved a one-year,$100 per semester energy surcharge. With that,resident attendance costs surpassed $3,000 per semester for the first time.
Tamara Draut,author of “Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead,” said that in the 1970s Pell Grant programs covered an average of 75 percent of the cost of college. Today,they cover only a third,she said.
“The primary way that students are financing college now are work and loans,” Draut said.
Luke Swarthout,associate director of the State Public Interest Research Group Higher Education Project,said college should be accessible to anyone.
“We should let anybody who wants to go to college go to college,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to work 35 hours to go to school full time.”
Hess said that with an aging population,and rising health care costs,the possibility that Congress will increase federal financial aid programs is “basically nil.”
“I would suggest thinking about taking the money that is there and repackage it and rethink it to tackle the problems you are more concerned about,” he said.
Draut said the spiraling cost of higher education has more than just an economic impact.
“Education isn’t just about earning more money,” she said. “It’s about maintaining a well-functioning democracy.”