The average cost to attend a private college in 1970 was about $3,000 per year. Today, it costs over $50,000.
How we got to this point, and its seemingly endless consequences for families and American society, are the questions explored in Will Bunch. new book“After the Fall of the Ivory Tower: How College Shattered the American Dream and Blew Our Politics and How to Fix It.”
Bunch is a Pulitzer Prize– award-winning journalist and national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Our discussion below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
“We have chosen to privatize higher education rather than make it a public good”
Anne Nova: What do you think are the main reasons why college in the United States has become so expensive?
Will Bunch: Some of these administrators receive questionable salaries. Also, many schools believe that the best way to compete for new students is not prize money but prestige, offering luxury perks – think: lazy rivers or rock climbing walls. But the overall answer is that we have chosen to privatize higher education rather than make it a public good. Taxpayer support for public universities has dropped in most states. In my own state, Pennsylvania, it went from 75% of the cost to just 25%. Students and their families are asked to make up the substantial difference.
AN: What were the consequences of these high prices?
WB: The impact of this decision to privatize higher education, which took place without much public debate, was enormous. The most obvious impact was tThe $1.75 trillion mountain of US student debt, more than Americans owe on all of our credit cards, and which will only be alleviated somewhat by President Biden’s recent decision to cancel the debt. Young people with these debts weighing on them have postponed buying or renting a house, buying a car, or even getting married. Yet the even greater impacts are political and social. The lack of college access and affordability has caused enormous resentment and grievances, both among those locked out without a degree and among those who have borrowed so much to get one.
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“Many young people vote with their feet avoiding a university education”
Student borrowers hold a rally in front of the White House to celebrate President Biden’s cancellation of student debt and to begin the fight to cancel any remaining debt on August 25, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Paul Morigi | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
AN: How feasible are these changes at this stage?
WB: Making public 4-year universities free or nearly free would be expensive and would require new sources of funding. Senator Bernie Sanders, [I-Vt.]once proposed a tax on Wall Street transactions, while Senator Elizabeth Warren, [D-Mass.], supported a wealth tax. All it would take is a few more progressive members of Congress.
AN: What role have government student loans played in driving up the cost of higher education?
WB: The government – federal and state – has played a huge role that is not talked about. Ronald Reagan, who was elected governor of California in 1966 by running against the student protest, was the avatar of the movement to privatize the university. As president, his administration slashed Pell grants and created a system in which Congress pushed college costs further into loans for students and parents, removing borrowing limits that accounted for the upward spiral costs. The Parent Plus program, for example, has few restrictions on credit or the amount that can be borrowed, and participants wanting to send their child to the college of their dreams sometimes find themselves with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. .
AN: If it survives legal challenges, how might Biden’s new student loan forgiveness plan impact the cost of college, if any?
WB: This seems to be the biggest flaw of the Biden plan, which is that it didn’t include anything about how to reduce college costs in the future. This means freshmen entering college in the fall of 2022 are likely borrowing money at levels similar to those that created the need for this massive debt cancellation in the first place.
AN: In what ways do you fault the university for making America as divided as it is today?
WB: College became the American dream for young people after World War II – when millions saw a lost degree as a path to a better life. The privatization of the university and the consecration of the idea that the university was not a wide path for the middle class created a society seething with resentment. Today, the Democrats are becoming the party of college graduates clustered in cities and suburbs, while the GOP plays to the grievances of the white working class. These groups have less in common, few social contacts, diametrically opposed political beliefs – and increasingly hate each other. Education is the secret sauce of this division.
AN: Besides reducing costs, how can we fix some of that?
WB: In the book, I devote the final chapter to the idea of a universal, government-supported gap year of primarily civilian national service for 18-year-olds between high school and beyond. This would accomplish several things: It would help today’s young people, who are clearly struggling, to better decide on their future. These projects — such as conservation work like preventing the next wildfire or working in disadvantaged schools or communities — would benefit America. But these young people would also benefit from a common and shared sense of national purpose with children from different backgrounds, from red states and blue states. We achieved this, unwittingly, through wars and military conscription. It’s a bloodless way to bring Americans together.
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Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter explains how college got so expensive – Reuters