Tuition Blues

As young people head off to college, you wonder if there's a better way than loading them down with crippling debt

What a summer! Punctuated by a dramatic cosmic display on the part of the sun, we've enjoyed plenty of heat and plenty of shine these precious few months. Now, as the earth continues its yearly trip around the sun, it's time to head back to work and/or school.

As is customary in August and September, millions of students are headed to college. We all shake our heads at the rising costs of a college education — increasing every year at a speedy 6 percent rate of inflation.

Full-time students at the University of Idaho who are Idaho residents can expect to pay $7,488 for student fees and tuition, approximately $8,500 for room and board and an estimated $1,300 in books and supplies. Adding transportation and personal expenses, the total estimated 2017 costs for a year of instruction is $21,300. That's not cheap; it's a lot to beg or borrow.

Back in California, when my world was new, my college expenses were a modest $3,000 a year for the whole deal — tuition, room and board. In the 60 years that have followed, tuition and living expenses at colleges across the country have galloped out of sight. A year at Harvard now costs a mind-blowing $75,000.

We aren't going to reverse the clock, or the rate of inflation, nor do we want to. But it would be very possible to make sure that every student who wants to earn a college degree can do so without accumulating an unmanageable debt.

I rant frequently about how we have a reverse, unjust system in our country, where old people skate by with lots of privileges, while young adults who are starting out in life face staggering college debts.

When you think about it, it really isn't fair that senior citizens have all sorts of bargains just because of age, and not ability to pay — reduced prices on movie tickets, hotel rooms, admission to museums, lower fares on bus and train tickets, sometimes even plane tickets. I am very aware that many, even the majority, of seniors may need reduced rates and extra privileges as inflation eats away at their retirement nest egg. But many seniors have accumulated wealth and can afford to pay full fare.

Young people now are told that they will need a college education in order to make their way up the ladder of economic success. At the same time, the cost of a year's tuition may exceed their family's total income for that year.

So the kids have to borrow money, while their grandparents have a system tilted in their direction. That said, I know a large number of grandparents believe that a college education is essential and are already backing up their beliefs with tuition money. I also know that many grandparents don't have the money available to help with their grandchildren's ever-increasing education costs. They help where they can.

Funds for the University of Idaho, as with other state colleges and universities across the country, were crippled by the 2007-08 recession. Student tuition rates have risen to compensate. Across the country, the salaries of university instructors have remained flat. Increased costs have been covered by hikes in student tuition and fees. State legislatures need to bring their public college budgets up to date, but Idaho is flagging.

We are told that the total outstanding student debt in the United States is more than $1.2 trillion — a sum that's beyond my ability to comprehend. It's a disgrace that we tolerate a system that puts such a drag on our children's efforts to launch their lives.

It's important to point out that several European countries provide a free undergraduate education to their citizens. That's how it is in Sweden, where college is free and loans to young people are of the long-term, low-interest variety. The intent of the loans is to encourage young people to move out of mom and dad's home, perhaps to buy a house of their own and even get married.

Sweden, Norway and other European countries have also figured out how to make sure everyone has guaranteed health care, as well as a college education.

We are a relatively young country when compared with the longstanding European cultures that value both an educated life and a healthy one. Such cultures believe government is a useful partner in making sure these experiences are shared by all members of their society.

There isn't anything more important to our country's future than giving our children the knowledge and skills necessary to lead successful lives. Also essential is available, affordable health care.

Wouldn't we have a great society if we provided a college education for every person who wants one? A college education, and Medicare for all?

If Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and other countries can do it, why can't we do it here in the USA? ♦

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