, Newburyport, MA

August 5, 2013

Questions on the sky-high cost of college

Newburyport Daily News

---- — To the editor:

Your recent editorial on the sky-high cost of college nowadays and the need to reduce student loans was a welcome focus on a nationwide problem; certainly many of our own young people are facing (or will face) the dreadful reality of bending the energies of their most vital years to paying off unconscionable debts. The whole situation is rotten. Thank you for tackling it.

That said, here are a few questions that occurred to me. Why have college costs, over the past four decades, risen so much higher than other aspects of the economy? When did this awful gap start to happen? I find that the current glib answer, “market forces,” does not make sense. “Market forces,” whatever those may be, do not make decisions: people do.

My own musing on these questions may be half-baked, but I’ll proffer it in lieu of anything better. To the best of my recollections, the cost of a college education began to skyrocket shortly after the student uprising against the Vietnam War, the campus takeovers, the shootings (of students) at Kent State, etc. in the ‘60s. Did it then become public policy to make college financially feasible only for the offspring of the well-off? Such young people, after all, have little reason to demonstrate against a “system” that is strongly favorable to them. And it’s obvious that, if the scions of the unwealthy who do manage to get through college have to take out massive student loans, they will be too loaded with debt for years to come to indulge in any sideline activities, such as protesting injustices, that might conceivably improve our system of government or our way of life, thereby imperiling those who profit from our current blasphemous financial inequities.

My next question is, how do you define college? Is it a multi-year course of study that teaches young people how to live a meaningful life; how to use their minds; what a glorious diversity stretches all around us every day, from subatomic particles to the millions of galaxies in outer space; what comprises the best that has ever been done, thought or expressed on our planet? Or is it a trade school, which cranks out individuals narrowly equipped only to earn a living in one specific and limited way?

I have to ask this because, immediately on graduating from a fine liberal arts college, I took a “slog job” just to keep going until I had sorted out what sort of work I was good at and could best pursue for my own benefit and that of others. Most of my friends did the same thing, and we ended up pretty well. But of course, we did not have college loans to pay off. My tuition at Boston University was $400 a year.

Hey, somebody — do something to help these kids!

Ann Staffeld