More than 70 students and faculty gathered on Friday via Zoom for a moderated discussion on student loan debt and the political and social factors driving the rising cost of higher education in the United States.
At the event, hosted by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, a research group focused on the basic needs of college students, a panel of faculty explained how decreased federal assistance for colleges and universities beginning in the 1980s contributed to the rise in debt among college graduates and how a shift back to more federal funding for public universities could help students leave school with less debt.
Dierdre Hopkins, director of communications for the Hope Center, moderated the discussion with Richard Deeg, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociology professor who founded the Hope Center.
After inflation reached double digits nationwide in the 1970s, private loans subsidized by the federal government started to replace federal grants awarded to college students from middle-class and working-class households, NPR reported.
From 2008 to 2018, tuition increased nationwide at four-year public colleges by 37 percent, while state funding per student decreased just more than $2,500, CNBC reported.
By 2020, student loan debt collectively reached $1.56 trillion, making it the second highest consumer debt category behind mortgage debt, Forbes reported.
In 2016, 10.1 percent of students defaulted on their federal student loans, with a default rate of 9.6 percent for students who attended public schools and a default rate 6.6 percent for students who attended private schools, according to the United States Department of Education.
Ralph Young, a history professor, hosted Friday’s panel as a part of a series of “teach-ins” he has held each year for nearly 20 years.
“The whole idea about the teach-ins is for students to gather together and discuss controversial and important issues, and so that they have a better understanding,” Young said.
Deeg started the discussion by explaining how Temple University and other colleges nationwide set tuition prices based on campus amenities and resources. Deeg compared higher education systems in the U.S. and Germany and explained that college is more expensive in the U.S. because its universities tend to spend more money to advertise, employ administrative staff, fund sports programs and give students more resources, like scholarships.
A semester fee at a university in Germany is usually around $250 for administrative and student union costs, NBC News reported.
The average cost of tuition per semester in the U.S. is just less than $10,000 for a public, in-state school, US News reported.
“Debt is really a function, to a great extent, of the cost at higher education,” Deeg said.
Temple’s Board of Trustees froze undergraduate tuition base rates for the 2020-21 academic year, making it the second consecutive year without a tuition increase for undergraduate in-state students, The Temple News reported.
Tuition for in-state Temple students varies between schools but is between $16,080 and $22,632 per year, according to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.
The rise in student debt can be attributed to more people attending college, decreased government funding for higher education and increased living costs in the U.S., Goldrick-Rab said.
“The government used to say it is so important to this country for various reasons that people get a college education, that we don’t want your talent to be wasted if you can’t afford college, so we will help you pay for it and we will help you pay for it with grants,” Goldrick-Rab added. “Then people were elected into office that did not agree that college was of great value and did not agree the public should pay for it.”
Between 1980 and 1985, government spending on higher education decreased by 25 percent, The Washington Post reported.
Mohammad Kiani, an engineering professor, asked panelists at the event if part of the student debt problem is that it’s easier to get into college in the U.S. than in other countries.
“Other parts of the world, it’s tough to get into college, here it’s like a birth-given right, and I think that’s part of the problem,” Kiani said.
The average college acceptance rate in the U.S. is 68 percent, US News & World Report reported.
Deeg agreed that greater access to higher education affects student debt, but that colleges also raise their prices because people associate higher prices with better education.
“Universities don’t compete by saying let’s keep lowering our cost to get more students,” Deeg said. “What they do is raise their prices, their nominal price, because we view price as an indicator of the quality.”
Rania Bakhri, a freshman bioengineering student, heard about the teach-in from a friend and attended the event because she is interested in education.
Bakhri enjoyed listening to Goldrick-Rab speak and learning about how financial decisions made by wealthy people affect the rest of the country, she said.
“I liked how the event was open panel and how there was a range of different speakers and how students were able to talk in the chat,” Bahkri said. “For me, an engineering major, like people don’t expect my major to have a conversation about sociology. I think it’s important to have these conversations across every school regardless of your major.”
Bakhri urges students to look into the future teach-ins to learn about issues that are relevant to their community, she said.
“If you have the chance to learn about an issue that’s affecting your community or where you live, and you’re having a discussion at your university, I would suggest that you join,” Bakhri said. “You never know what you can learn and the effects it can have on you or your major and your future career.”