Opinion Graphic 2018

Nicole Ziege’s recent article on the phantasmagorical costs of attending college sheds light on how adults have failed to invest in our nation’s economic future. Instead, they have saddled young people with decades of debt.

According to the Institute for College Access and Success, 63 percent of 2016 college graduates from Kentucky owed an average of $28,910. LendEDU.com reported that WKU graduates from that same year owed slightly less, with an average student debt per borrower of $28,081. Data from The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education showed that between 2010 and 2013, this debt increased by 13 percent for former Hilltoppers.

WKU bears some responsibility for the explosion of tuition and fees. Years of seemingly endless construction projects, pollyannaish views of domestic and international student growth and questionable spending on administrative and non-academic areas have contributed to rising costs.

However, much of the blame rests with elected officials in Frankfort. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state funding per college student has dropped nearly $3,000 (32 percent) during the last 10 years in Kentucky. Not coincidentally, full-time tuition for Kentucky residents at WKU has risen by about the same amount during this period. Only six states have reduced investments in public universities more than Kentucky, which falls in the bottom 10 states for college affordability. Public universities were designed to provide affordable education for residents of that state.  

When presented with these facts, some argue that college isn’t for everyone. While this is true, tertiary education is now more necessary for individual and societal economic prosperity than at any other time in American history, and Kentucky is not exactly bursting with college graduates.

In Wallet Hub’s survey of the most and least educated states, Kentucky placed 45th, ahead of only Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia and Mississippi. Unfortunately, many of the benefits associated with college completion will be reduced for both the individual and the community because of loans and the crushing interest rates many of them carry. For several years after graduation, substantial sums will flow into far-away financial institutions rather than local businesses. Down payments on homes will be delayed, as will having children and saving for retirement. Only the very naïve would claim that such a state of affairs produces innovation, entrepreneurship and a belief in the fundamental goodness of our nation.   

Civic apathy and fatalistic attitudes created this problem and will allow it to become even worse. Responses rooted in first-person accounts of working one’s way through college during the 60s, 70s or 80s often reveal moral smugness and self-serving cluelessness about the current state of affairs. Those who believe this issue doesn’t affect them fail to understand that communities with low levels of education are mired in poverty. They likewise do not grasp the overall economic instability caused by high levels of personal debt. While the voices of students and their parents may initially motivate elected officials to act, only a commitment to affordable higher education by all members of the community can ensure it becomes a sustainable reality.