Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
The annual bells of outrage are ringing. As is ritual, they begin to toll around July, when tuition payments are due, and blare a clear message: the cost of college is ridiculous.
Year after year, tuition costs have indefatigably climbed upwards. Without considering financial aid, this academic year Swatties and their families will doll out $53,250 for the year, a four percent increase from last year and 45.9 percent increase just a decade ago. Meanwhile household incomes have remained stagnant.
But what we pay doesn’t cover the bulk of it. Tuition only finances 40 percent of the actual cost of attending Swarthmore. The rest our generous endowment pays. Nevertheless, it’s a Kafkaesque tragedy of unparalleled absurdity. Does the cost of higher education—a basic right of passage for a middle class lifestyle—really cost more than most suburb homes?
Soon parents will better ensure their child’s future by dumping their college savings into stocks or real estate, not education. Economically speaking, the trend is unsustainable: left unchanged, a generation of finicky consumers saddled in loans and debt will enter the workforce, shrinking the consumer base and causing long-term, structural harm to our service-based economy. After a housing bubble and financial crisis that shook that world to its core, the prospect of a student loan bubble should make lawmakers quiver.
For us at Swarthmore, macroeconomics scares are unnecessary. This isn’t some distant occurrence, but personal and real to all of us—a tragedy that, despite the efforts of our financial aid office to insulate us, remains salient. Many of us will graduate this spring, some of us saddled in debt, many more of us having spent the last four years following our intellectual whims towards a course of study abundant in intellectual intrigue and short on practicality. Despite the cost of our education, our salaries, at least without further schooling, will be meager.
High winded arguments about following one’s passion aren’t necessary here. This is the lifestyle many of us chose, and we know where it will take us, at least initially. But there’s obscenity in the discrepancy. Education is a basic public good. Educated, informed citizens aren’t as easily swept up by demagogic rhetoric and in general demand a higher-quality public discourse.
Education, moreover, offers a specialized public good. A civil engineer produces bridges; a musician produces art. Some, like the engineer, will also produce a valuable private good, and thus be compensated by a private firm. Other, however, will not. The Swarthmore grad who goes and works for a environmental watchdog NGO will be paid a pittance of the actual value of their work. They are producing a diffuse public good—everyone benefits from clean environment—and thus no one in particular feels compelled to compensate them. But the result is the same: both are doing valuable work to help better our society. And at what cost? The engineer will hopefully, with some sound financial planning, be able to pay of their loans. The other? Not so likely.
There’s a grave injustice in this logic. Society needs both individuals. The engineer building the bridge and the advocate concerned about the environmental impact. A society that reaps the benefits of the latter individual’s work, without helping him or her pay the exorbitant price of an education, is erring into a morally nebulous domain. This society is relying on the individual’s passions to overtake sounder financial concern, all while reaping the benefits of their toils. This society is free riding.
And yet the obscenity of the situation does not end there. When we graduate, the administration will hand us a piggy bank—the so-called ‘garnet pig’— with the message that we have an obligation to donate what we can. As many of us march of into careers as unpaid interns, the annual procession of piggy banks borders on a travesty.
But this isn’t Swarthmore’s fault. Swarthmore, with its need-blind financial assistance, is heralded in the industry as a model of excellence. Nor is it the fault of higher education at large. Scour the school’s financial records, and you won’t find egregious waste, at least not enough waste to remedy the problem. In truth, Swarthmore needs that money in the piggy bank.
Higher education is suffering something economists like to call ‘Baumol’s disease.’ Most sectors are liable to changes in productivity. As technology improves, so does that rate at which they can produce their goods or services. The result is lower prices and higher salaries. Education, however, is different. Ever since Aristotle taught Alexander, the the industry has remained the same. Predictably so, as you cannot produce an education, at least the type Swarthmore gives out, in drastically more efficient ways. New technology helps, but the trade itself remains the same: a student and teacher. The result is higher prices to keep up with salaries in other sectors.
Society at large needs to lend a hand. More federal loans and scholarship, and service based initiative, whereby loans can be forgiven for a certain amount of time working in the nonprofit sectors or government service, are all good options. Colleges like Swarthmore have a valuable pulpit in their name recognition and network of public intellectuals, and they need to use it.
Of course, in an age where even Pell Grants are making their way onto the chopping block, clamoring for more federal aid for education has a scant chance of success. Nevertheless, college need make the dilemma known: a world class education system doesn’t pay for itself. If Americans want to maintain their excellence in molding young minds, they’re going to have to pay for it.
Of course, the average debt of a Swarthmore graduate is around $20 thousand. Few here would argue that this education, and the friendships and memories that accompany it, aren’t worth that financial sacrifice. But the trends are unmistakable, and they soon will be unsustainable. Already, arguments abound that parents should no longer see education as an unconditional good. For Swarthmore, an institution that enshrines intellectual pursuit among its core tenets, the cost of tuition is a challenge it must face before it’s too late.