In this upside-down world, public college means heavier debt load

Published in The News Tribune, June 6, 2012

With the latest news that tuition at our state’s public institutions of higher education will probably rise another 16 percent next year, it’s easy to imagine that our public colleges soon will be as expensive to attend as are the private ones.

But in fact for many students, private colleges have already become the more affordable option. 

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times published a long front page article on student debt; detailed comparative data available through its website allows you to compare debt by institutions around the nation.  It turns out that students attending the nation’s most select private institutions – places like Williams College, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and MIT – graduate with some of the nation’s lowest student debt.

Take Princeton for instance.  Four out of five of its students graduate with no debt.  Compare this with my own public institution, the University of Washington Tacoma (UWT), where only one in two students graduate with no debt.  Moreover, those Princeton students graduating with debt do so owing half the amount owed by a typical UWT student — $8,000 versus $17,000.

Closer to home, an average Whitman College student graduates with significantly less debt than does a UWT student, despite Whitman charging four times more in tuition than does my institution.

OK, maybe it’s not news that rich kids whose parents can afford to foot the $50,000 bill that elite colleges charge these days are the ones who attend them, and those who can’t go to public institutions.  As tuition rises, those in public institutions see their debt go up, while those in select private schools – well, their parents just fork up the extra money.

Except that’s not exactly the story here.  For the most part, what elite private schools do is charge wealthy families full fare, and for those who are not, they charge a lower tuition, assuring that their institution remains affordable for all they admit.   In essence, the rich kids are “taxed” to help subsidize everyone else.  Coupled with funds from these colleges’ large endowments, the end result is that elite private schools have become the affordable option for the most academically-successful students.

If you want a reasonably-priced college education for your kid, then, don’t send them to the University of Washington or (heaven forbid!) Washington State:  Get them into Harvard.

If this all seems backward, that’s because it is.  The New York Times article profiled average youth from average backgrounds who graduated from average colleges — most certainly earning average grades as well.  These students were leaving college with at times $50,000 in debt, paying this off by working two jobs waiting on tables.  One woman dropped out of college because her debt was keeping her up at night, and she simply couldn’t stomach taking on more.

Compare her lot with what awaits a Yale graduate who, if typical, graduates owing only $3,000.

The nation’s most academically successful youth, in other words, are not suffering the financial consequences of the public’s withdrawal of support to higher education.  At least not nearly as much as are students closer to the average, and whose job prospects make them less able to shoulder college debt than can their Ivy League counterparts.

How do we turn this backward picture around?  We could follow the TNT’s lead (editorial 5-13) and continue to pound the message that higher education must have more funds, hoping that eventually Washington citizens see that it might not be such a bad idea to raise state taxes.  Or we could move to the high-tuition high-aid model that many favor, and that turns out to be very successful in our elite private institutions.  The problem here is that unlike those institutions, public ones are not blessed with a large population of students whose parents don’t blink at a $50,000 price tag.

Or we could search for new and different funding models that might do a better job of spreading the burden of paying for college while also trying to assure that it remains a worthwhile investment.

Of these options, I vote for the third.  My next column explains what this might look like.