The $$$$ cost of American college: a fix?


Aaaaaaah, the “promise” of higher education!


By Caitlin Kelly

I generally avoid wading into political issues here  — we get enough of that elsewhere! — but this is a subject I care a lot about, the skyrocketing costs of American university/college education. In an elbows-out nation addicted to capitalism, being hampered in any meaningful way from being able to compete effectively for well-paid work is a huge problem.

Many colleges now charge $60,000 (!) a year, to a wealthy family mere pocket change — and for many others, an unfathomable sum to assume. That’s assuming only undergrad, not graduate school or further professional training.

I taught in 2014-2015 at Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn, to students who had decided that paying $60,000 a year to study writing was a wise investment.

But seriously?

Few writers, whether of fiction, poetry or journalism, will ever earn $60,000 a year; a very fortunate few will make it to that level and beyond, and generally those who were able to afford and attend and graduate from Big Name Schools. Hence the crazed arms race to get into them, which will likely send a few celebrities to prison for paying bribes for this purpose.

I recently read the comments of an entry-level newspaper reporter — yes, a “real job” — paying $14/hour.

Yes, there are state schools.

Yes, you can spend the first two years at a community college and save a lot of money and transfer for the name on your diploma.

But still.

It shocks me deeply — in a nation that fetishizes college (they never call it university) as the golden key to prosperity –– that student debt is the only form of indebtedness you can’t discharge by declaring bankruptcy.

I know people in their 40s and beyond (!) who still owe a significant sum on loans they took out decades earlier.

Here’s potential Democratic Presidential candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren, with her bold proposal, published on Medium to help millions of American shed this burden:

An excerpt:


Higher education opened a million doors for me. It’s how the daughter of a janitor in a small town in Oklahoma got to become a teacher, a law school professor, a U.S. Senator, and eventually, a candidate for President of the United States.

Today, it’s virtually impossible for a young person to find that kind of opportunity. As states have invested less per-student at community colleges and public four-year colleges, the schools themselves have raised tuition and fees to make up the gap. And rather than stepping in to hold states accountable, or to pick up more of the tab and keep costs reasonable, the federal government went with a third option: pushing families that can’t afford to pay the outrageous costs of higher education towards taking out loans.

The result is a huge student loan debt burden that’s crushing millions of families and acting as an anchor on our economy. It’s reducing home ownership rates. It’s leading fewer people to start businesses. It’s forcing students to drop out of school before getting a degree. It’s a problem for all of us.


I first saw this piece posted on Twitter — where, not surprisingly, it had gathered 17,741 re-tweets and 66,877 likes.

I paid $660 a year in the mid 1970s to attend University of Toronto, Canada’s top school. Today, resident tuition for and arts & sciences undergraduate is about $5,000.

Not $50,000.

That four-year degree gave me the self-confidence and skills to compete effectively against the most expensively groomed and educated writers in New York, the publishing capital.

But if I had graduated burdened by decades of debt, my life — and my career — would have looked very different. Jose, my husband, had all four years at New Mexico State paid for because his father was a Baptist minister in Santa Fe. He, too, rocketed out of school with a degree, a ton of ambition and the freedom to take chances and learn needed professional skills wherever he best could.

We were really lucky.

Success should not be predicated on luck.

Are you — or your kids — saddled with American college debt?


How does it affect you?



18 thoughts on “The $$$$ cost of American college: a fix?

  1. Someone else brought this up on Twitter recently, and I’ll say the same thing: I was relatively lucky. I didn’t have too many loans, and I was able to get a good job soon after I started to pay them off. And when my grandfather died, he left me enough in his will to wipe out my debt in one full stroke.
    Like I said, I was lucky. Which is why I feel awful for those who have wracked up hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. If we keep throwing students into debt like this, eventually we’re going to be a nation with fewer graduates or a lot of people in debt. Either way, I don’t like the idea of a nation like that.

      1. Me too. If I’m ever in a position to advocate for change, I have a feeling being debt free will be helpful.
        Speaking of which, I became debt free exactly a year ago. Amazing coincidence, wouldn’t you say?

      2. How can it not?

        The U.S. economy is so heavily predicated on “consumer spending” — and you can’t spend money on anything else that is already earmarked for DECADES to pay off higher educational debt.

        I feel sorry for many of my younger friends — one of them is 30 and owes $100,000. This is insane; you owe the = of a house (in many places) and won’t be able to own your own home for decades because of the education you took to….earn a higher income?! It works only for those who come into steady well-paid work in specific fields, not millions of others.

      3. Which is objectively insane. I don’t have children but I tell ALL MY FRIENDS who do to send their kids to Canada to study — even at foreign student rates $25,000/yr versus $5k for residents that’s a 25% discount for Canadian currency — and a terrific education still much less costly. Our mechanic’s daughter is heading to Ontario to study and I am delighted. It’s also a great way to broaden one’s POV when so many American campuses are plagued with binge drinking, fraternity madness, and racism. Canada isn’t free of this but much less so, from my experience.

  2. My husband was encouraged to take out numerous loans while attending college and graduate school. The week that we paid off his last student loan, we applied for financial aid (and loans) for our son’s education. (you can’t make this stuff up – there wasn’t even a full week being free of concern about educational expenses!) The result was that we were involved in paying back educational loans for the first 35 years of our marriage – debt-free now though. We have happy lives and love what we do, but weren’t in high-paying fields (musicians and academics).

  3. I only recently finally paid off the last of my graduate school loans, and my three daughters have now paid off theirs. we all worked our way through, got loans, because of our life circumstances there were times when we all went to school at the same time. life could have been so much easier without these debts –

    1. There are so many other ways to have enjoyed the use of those funds.

      I would never have had the feeling of optimism — or the ability to take on some career-making adventures (which were also hust FUN) — had I been burdened with debt.

  4. vibrantamazon

    I’m not an American, so I don’t know much about the state of universities there beyond its exorbitant cost and forgive me for my ignorance. I’m fortunate in the sense that I received a scholarship on top of being a local, since our government heavily subsidises the tuition fees for its citizens.

    At the same time, I’ve heard many of my peers believing that what they learn in college won’t be of any help in the workforce. So in this case I’m curious, did you guys feel the education you received was valuable? Or did you pursue it for the certificate?

    1. How great you were able to get an affordable education — really a huge help not to leave school burdened for so many years by debt.

      Great question. I studied English lit in Toronto and I am a writer so that worked out for me.

      I think far too many American undergraduate students enter costly college without a clear sense of purpose or direction and hope to magically find it as they go through four years there…which is a VERY expensive way to discern aptitudes! If you are studying a focused topic with plenty of well-paid jobs (aspects of science, computer science or engineering, I think that’s different.

      I don’t mean to suggest that attending university isn’t an important time to learn a lot of new things. I loved my political science class (only one) and philosophy (only one.) I wish I had tried much more….but was very focused on learning French and Spanish, so had almost no room for electives.

      1. vibrantamazon

        Being in university definitely opened my eyes to a lot of things. But I was thinking about some conversations I’ve had with my friends, and I realised many (including myself) had interests that diverged wildly from the courses they ended up studying. I was into literature and environmental issues, but I was worried about job prospects in my little country of Singapore, and ended up choosing a course that taught skills which were known to be in demand. It can feel like there’s a pressure to become a university graduate asap.

        Did you know you were going into a writing profession before deciding to study English Lit? Knowing what they wanted to do before entering college seems like a rare thing among the undergrads I’ve met in my university.

      2. I find it sad — but likely very common — that people choose the best job-related majors instead of the subjects they love most.

        I wanted to become a journalist, specifically a foreign correspondent, from my early teens so all I studied was English lit, French and Spanish (with one political science class and one philosophy class.) I wish I’d learned less about 16th century plays and more about politics and economics. But it was a rigorous education and that is what mattered. I went to the U of Toronto (Canada’s top school, vying with McGill.)

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