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College Isn’t Cheap

Jason (Frugal Dad)
Frugal Dad / Infographic
Published: Tuesday 15 January 2013
There’s no denying that college is outrageously expensive and, unfortunately, it is only getting worse.

There are dozens of benefits that justify earning a higher education, including–but by no means limited to–better employment prospects, access to jobs with higher pay and the broadening of a college student’s social and mental horizons. Even so, approximately one in two high school graduates choose to forgo these potential benefits because they cannot reconcile the cost of the college experience with the bleak reality of the financial situation in which many new college grads find themselves.

There’s no denying that college is outrageously expensive. And, unfortunately, it is only getting worse; while the average family income in the United States grew 147% in the years between 1982 and 2007, the cost of college grew by a staggering 440% in that same period. What that means in terms of real numbers is that the average cost of a four-year degree from a state school is now $30,000. Most American families do not have that kind of money up front, which necessitates that they borrow it from private or government programs that issue student loans. Unfortunately, student loans leave college graduates an average of $20,000 in debt when they finish school. And approximately 10% of graduates will have twice that debt to repay. Collectively, American students owe more than one trillion dollars.

Figures like these, in combination with the fact that only half of all college graduate obtained a full-time job in 2011, are why more than six million graduates cannot pay back their student loans. The economic recession that began in 2008 has made it exceptionally difficult for college graduates to find jobs in their field. The upshot is that students take on lower-paying jobs that do not require degrees in order to make ends meet. Even so, that limited income is, in many cases, not enough to pay back their debt.

One in six default on their loans and a whopping 85% of 2011 college graduates were forced to move back in with their parents after school because they could not afford their own living space. To keep your children from contributing from that statistic, there are several ways to start saving well ahead of the day they move into the dorms:

  • Start when your kids are young
  • Contribute regularly to a savings account
  • Invest wisely in equities
  • Take advantage of 529 College Savings Plans
  • Utilize tax credits for parents of college students

Of course, parents do not have to shoulder the entire responsibility of their children’s education. There are many ways for students to help pay for their own education, including earning scholarships, applying to federal student aid programs and participating in work study opportunities. To make sure teenagers are contributing to their college funds, parents can encourage them to grow their own income by saving money from a part-time job. Remember, saving just $20 per week by making small sacrifices leads to $1,000 in savings over a year. And with college tuition rates steadily increasing, every dollar counts.

This infographic was created by

Add me to the critics on the

Add me to the critics on the advice.

At the individual level:

1) Saving versus spending (where practical) is good life advice, but not a solution to the college cost problem.

2) The jobs are not necessarily there in many college majors. If you can't afford it, find something better to do that makes more sense financially. Adjust to the idea that USA is set up so that only a minority can afford college by getting jobs that pay college graduate wages.

3) The better the student, the cheaper the college education. The most elite colleges have the best financial aid packages. (Unfortunately, the 90th percentile helps, but is still well below 99th, which is noticeably below 99.9th.) Families need to work with their kids to be better students, and to learn how to learn.

4) Avoid student loan programs like the plague. The laws were written by crooked banks and passed by a crooked government to maximize transfer of wealth from middle class college families to the wealthy bankers.

5) Avoid for-profit schools, They are expensive, many of them do nothing for your career, and many of them are really just a way to suck people into the student loan trap.

At the macro level:

1) We need a new model for higher learning, although much of it is an old model. Why is college so expensive, when the vast majority of classes are out of a standard catalog? Colleges are primarily run to keep college staffs employed. If we use a unit based on 20 course years (CY) to graduate (5 courses full, times four years, I suspect 200 separate CYs would cover at least 80% of the needs for the entire nation. Every college or university does not need a separate course. Once this is developed, eliminate separate course development, texts, and lectures at different universities. I have a difficult time believing instructional cost couldn't be reduced buy at least half in five years, with no loss (and probably an increase) in quality.

2) In order for the previous to work, students must learn how to learn on their own, and collaboratively with other students.

3) Jobs must be addressed, a huge issue in itself. Stop voting for crooked politicians, and all who accept any but the smallest campaign contributions are crooked. Push for single payer health care; the present system is designed to make USA uncompetitive.

Tips for saving money for

Tips for saving money for college? Are you kidding me? There's no way in hell the average couple (let alone the average single parent) can save enough to be able to afford to send their kids to a decent college. All the statistics cited at the beginning of this article make the suggestion that it is possible to deal with the student loan debt crisis by "saving for college" a joke. College simply isn't worth what it costs today, for a variety of reasons (see: ). What we need is not advice about saving but suggestions for political reforms that will reduce the cost of college or eliminate it entirely. Every other economically developed country has either cheap or free higher education. The future of this country depends on our moving in that direction.

Frugal Dad: Sorry, but . . .

Frugal Dad:

Sorry, but . . . the statistics you cite are incorrect and the recommendations you make to alleviate the problem of student indebtedness are off base. I have worked in college recruitment for more than 20 years and thus am intimately familiar with the increase in costs for a college education and what such has posed for the post-2008 high school graduate.

First, you state that "while the average family income in the United States grew 147% in the years between 1982 and 2007" . . . please cite the source that demonstrates that the average American family income has increased by a WHOPPING 147% between 1982 and 2007. This is simply not the case. REAL wage income (i.e., excluding capital gains and dividend income and calculated in inflation adjusted dollars) has stagnated or DECREASED over that time frame (most of the families I have worked with over my decades long history in higher education are wage earners, not hedge fund managers or corporate investors). See the U.S. Census Bureau’s-Income-Historical-Tables-People specifically table P-53, Wage and Salary Workers by Median Wage or Salary Income and Sex (All Races). I suggest this table as it excludes those individuals whose income is derived from unearned (e.g, capital gains and dividends) sources and thereby reflects the historical trends of wages for the average American worker. Here’s what that table reveals in 2010 dollars for median wages in presidential election years (median wages all sexes in 2010 dollars):

1952 (Eisenhower): $18,601
1956 (Eisenhower): $20,548
1960 (Kennedy): $21,169
1964 (Johnson): $23,505
1968 (Nixon): $26,215
1972 (Nixon): $27,971
1976 (Carter): $31,990
1980 (Reagan): $27,227
1984 (Reagan): $26,889
1988 (Bush): $28,861
1992 (Clinton): $27,765
1996 (Clinton): $29,458
2000 (Bush): $32,890
2004 (Bush): $32,593
2008 (Obama): $32,097
2010: $32,268

Had average wages increased 147% since 1984, then the average wage would have been nearly $39,500 per year by 2007 - it was not then and still is not now.

The prices you quote for a college education are unclear: are you speaking about the total costs of an education (tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, basic transportation) or only the cost of tuition? Are you speaking of costs for one year or over four? Are you speaking of a public university or a private college? Taking UC-Berkley as an example, the average total cost amounts to $28,500 per year if the student lives off campus; $12,900 only for tuition. Thus, the costs range from $114,000 (total expenses) to $51,600 (tuition only) for a four year degree. And actually, tuition costs for instate students at Berkley are much less than those for public university students at institutions with which I'm familiar in the midwest.

Further, your admonishments to parents to address increasing costs assume a certain level of income stability over time. How many folks making 150% of the federal poverty line ($22,300 for a family of 4 x 150% = $33,450) can actually save significant amounts over time to: a) make any sort of real dent in the first year's, let alone subsequent years', expenses; b) have any discretionary income that enables them to "invest wisely in equities" in any fashion that will have a significant enough return to pay for even the first year's expenses? One must have money to invest and since the majority of American workers are considered low income, such recommendations are merely a pipe dream for most. And we won't even go down the road of pondering the challenges this $33,000 per year couple face when they are considering sending BOTH (i.e., more than one) kids to college.

How familiar are you with federal "student aid" programs? Most average (i.e., middle class) earners will NOT qualify for real "aid" (i.e., Pell Grants which do not have to be repaid) and thus only qualify for loans. The average (over 4 years) amount that a student may borrow through the federal direct loan program is $4750/year (less than 38% of only the costs of tuition for one year alone). All other costs (minimally $8,050 for tuition alone), must be financed through savings or private lending institutions. So the kiddo has saved $4,000 over 4 years of high school through employment as you recommend, that still leaves $4,000+ just for tuition alone for only the first year that is not covered. And we haven't even discussed books, lab fees, and living expenses yet in this calculation. Most students will also not qualify for significant scholarship dollars - there's not enough to go around and the criteria are most generally directed to the top 10% or less of incoming students.

Don't get me wrong. I wholeheartedly agree with your assessments regarding the importance of obtaining a college education and your perspectives regarding the spiraling costs of that education. However, your recommendations to families appear trite and insensitive when measured against the economic realities facing the majority of American families.

Better to lobby one's state legislature and the US congress for increased support of higher education funding. Our country's economic future depends on a solidly educated workforce. If we truly care about our future, whether we have college-aged children or not, we will wholeheartedly and unabashedly support increased public support for this crucial common good.

Oh man, what an excellent

Oh man, what an excellent response to a truly lame article! I wonder actually whether this article wasn't underwritten by big banks. Start saving money early? Yeah, right. That's like saying start sticking your finger in the dyke early.

Indeed! I earn an absolutely

Indeed! I earn an absolutely HUGE return on my meager savings at present: 0.10%. And, by golly, if I had $75,000 to plunk down at my bank, I'd be making an ASTOUNDING 0.50% on that wad of cash . . . in other words, all that "saving" over time will result in a loss (due to inflation) by the time Johnny's ready for college. On the other hand, if I had wisely invested that imaginary $75,000 in equities, I'd've lost most of it in the crash of 2007/08 - just at the time when my boys were heading off to college!!!

1) Congress has the power to

1) Congress has the power to create money without incurring debt - Lincoln did it to finance the Union during the Civil War.

2) As a society we have an obligation to ourselves to educate ourselves. As a democracy we have an obligation to finance college education for ourselves.

3) Congress could, and should, create enough money every year to pay tuition for every American who qualifies for a college education.

If the Fed can throw trillions of dollars at the banks and corporations, foreign and domestic, and buy up tens of billions of dollars of toxic debt every month, then our Congress can certainly get off its butt and finance higher education for everyone who qualifies. If democracy means anything it means we take care of ourselves - collectively, not individually, but for the good of us all.

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