Most college debt not college-related

While the Pew Center for Research’s recent survey about the cost/benefit of attending college is interesting, I think it fails to address some of the hidden issues.

The truth is that while students are amassing a staggering amount of debt while attending classes, much of that debt comes from educationally unnecessary expenditures. Today, students want to enjoy the fruits of their college labors while they are attending college, not wait until afterward. These are the critical expenses in their debt amount, not the tuition, room and board that many students claim they are still paying for years after they graduate.

They are just like the normal American who uses tomorrow’s debt to finance today’s frills.

At the risk of sounding like a crotchety old man lamenting that the world has actually changed in the last 40 years, it wasn’t like that back in the 1960s and 1970s, when I was in college.

I, and most of my friends, suffered in poverty to attend college. We worked random jobs that allowed us time for a decent class schedule, we lived in sub-standard housing, we did without cars, and we did without a lot of the social events that today’s pop-culture obsessed students go to on a regular basis.

Seventy five dollar concert ticket? I was happy if I could buy food. Occasionally all I ate in a day was oatmeal because it was heavy and made me feel full. For several years I couldn’t afford a car because I had no money for car insurance. Riding a bike or a motorcycle is not fun in the rain or snow. But it is cheap.

Most of my students have expensive laptops (I had to go to the labs on campus even to use a typewriter back in the day), smartphones (if you were really concerned about expenses, why wouldn’t you go with a regular phone and save money?), and are always talking before class about the latest concert they went to. Many are dressed in the latest fashions.

These are the same students who tell me they can’t afford a $50 textbook. These are the same students who tell me they have to leave early for spring break because they are going to Cancun, and it was the only time they could get a plane ticket. These are the same students I see leaving campus in shiny new cars. They want it all, and they want it NOW.

I realize that students are paying more today in tuition, even in inflation adjusted dollars, than I had to in the late 60s. That’s a fact. (Tuition is up 50% in the last decade.) But wait, what about the net cost of attending college? According to the College Board, the average U.S. college student gets about $3,100 in financial aid from federal and state governments.

In fact, in my home state of Florida (which consistently ranks among the lowest tuition costs in the country – the national average is $6,257 and Florida’s is $4,373, ahead of only Wyoming), most college students are eligible for “Bright Futures” scholarships when they graduate from high school. This amounts to $126 per credit hour for high-level students with a 3.5 GPA and high 1200 SAT scores. There are also lower levels of support for lower levels of achievement: $95 per credit hour for vocational students and those who could muster only a 3.0 GPA in high school.

The cost for classes at my university? $163 per. That means that even mediocre students have to pay only $68 per credit hour. That’s $945 in tuition per 15-hour semester. Another interesting factoid: 91 percent of freshman entering my university last year had a Bright Futures scholarship at one level or another. All you need to maintain the scholarship is a 3.0 GPA, 2.75 for the lower level funding.

So four and one-half years adds up to $10,395, without anticipated increases. Granted, room and board and books add to that cost, but you would have to pay room and board even if you didn’t go to school. And you don’t have to live in luxury and drive a newer car and then complain that college is so-o-o expensive.

I think that surveys such as the one by The Pew Center ought to include questions about what students are spending their money on and why they are going to school. This would cast a better light on why students are in such great debt.

I also guess that students in the liberal arts tradition, those who are taking classes meant to increase the student’s sense of self and purpose in the world, are going to have different attitudes about finances and outside activities than those using college as a steppingstone to a career.

Clearly, I need to give this more thought. There are a lot of variables that need to be part of this equation; I realize that it is not as simple as it is being presented. But it is interesting. Maybe I will run a survey of students at my university to see if any of this holds up under closer scrutiny. It just seems to me that much of the debt racked up by today’s college students is avoidable.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Most college debt not college-related”

  1. Yo Bobeee. When did you post this blog? The one about college students spending money frivolously? You see, I agree. Did you get any other people to comment?

    I asked my cousin’s son who is wallowing in debt how come he can’t live on the income he gets from his part time job while he’s in college. He cited the tuition costs and cost of books. Funny, that’s what I bitched about when I worked factories every summer.


  2. Hi Harry: Posted on Wednesday, 5/18. No one else has commented, although a few people “liked” the post on my Facebook page. It is easy to blame the cost of tuition, and it is pretty high compared to when we went to college. Still, I think there is a lot modern students could do without to make their debt smaller.

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