I’ve made it a habit to keep track of the New York Times’ “Most E-Mailed” articles list, because the list provides a fascinating window into the dreams, obsessions, and (especially) the anxieties of middle-class Americans. Currently, the most-emailed article is this piece, about how the ever-escalating cost of college combined with steep cuts in student aid and public support for higher education has left an entire generation drowning in debt. The article contains many scary statistics; here is one of them:

From 2001 to 2011, state and local financing per student declined by 24 percent nationally. Over the same period, tuition and fees at state schools increased 72 percent, compared with 29 percent for nonprofit private institutions, according to the College Board.

One major problem is that, not unlike the subprime lenders of the mortgage crisis, many colleges provide misleading information to naive prospective students about the true cost:

College marketing firms encourage school officials to focus on the value of the education rather than the cost. For example, an article on the cover of Enrollment Management, a newsletter aimed at college admissions officials, urged writers of admissions materials to “avoid bad words like ‘cost,’ ‘pay’ (try ‘and you get all this for…’), ‘contract’ and ‘buy’ in your piece and avoid the conflicting feelings they generate.”


The financial aid award letters to newly admitted students can also be a minefield for students and parents sorting through the true costs of a school. Some are written in a manner that suggests the student is getting a great deal, by blurring the line between grants and loans or not making clear how much the student may have to pay or borrow.

This is an extremely screwed up situation and there are a number of things we as a society need to do to address the problem of skyrocketing student debt. Here are two of the most important ones:

First, it’s long past time that we institute free college. Public colleges and universities should be tuition-free, just as public schools through grade 12 are free. Today, a college degree is at least as vital a prerequisite for entering the middle class as a high school diploma was 100 years ago. We need to update our public policies to reflect the times, and a higher education today should be affordable for everyone who is capable of doing college-level work. If we want to have a society in which every individual has the opportunity to fulfill her potential and an economy that makes the most efficient use of everyone’s talents, ending tuition at public colleges is essential.

Secondly, what the hell ever happened to the concept of consumer protection in this country? Clearly, we need strong consumer protection legislation that will look out for the interests of prospective college students and their families. Colleges should be mandated to provide full disclosure about the true cost of the education they offer, in the clearest and most simple language possible. One student in the Times article says of the private college she attends, “[W]hen I graduate, I’m going to owe like $900 a month. No one told me that.” We should make sure that every student is provided with estimates of how much it will cost them every month to pay back their student loans, and how many years it will take for the entire debt to be repaid.

Being weighed down by so much debt at such a young age is a terrible thing (and let’s not forget that student loan debts have to be paid back, even when a person declares bankruptcy — which, come to think of it, is another policy that should be changed). I graduated from college in 1994, and I will be forever grateful that my education was so affordable. I received a wonderful education at Hunter College, which is part of New York City’s CUNY system, and tuition there was low. My parents paid my tuition for the first two years, until my dad lost his job. After that I applied for financial aid, and through a combination of scholarships, grants, and loans, plus working 20 hours a week, I was able to live on my own and pay for school. I graduated a little less than 5 years after I matriculated, and my total debt upon leaving (and I remember the figure exactly) was only $1,300! What I did would just not be feasible today. Even at low-cost public school; even with grants, scholarships, and wages from a part-time job, few if any students today would be able to graduate with such a low level of debt.

Sometimes I think back and I reflect that I grew up in an America that, for all its profound and manifold faults, kinda sorta worked. For instance, if you were an ordinary middle class kid, like I was, and graduated from an average-quality American public high school, as I did, you would be able to attend an affordable public college and have every expectation of making a decent middle-class living after that. Sadly, that trajectory is available for increasingly few young people today. I feel for them. It’s my fondest hope that America can get itself unscrewed up enough so that we will once again have an economy and a political system that most of the time functions effectively for most working people.

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Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee