Price sensitivity and higher ed

As debt builds, is the public reacting?

By The Mercury

A Pew Research Center study has found that 19 percent of U.S. households are now carrying student debt, roughly twice as many as were doing so a little more than two decades ago when the parents of today’s students were in school. Just since 2007, the number of families with higher education-related debt has climbed by 15 percent.

The drivers of this debt phenomenon are both diverse and obvious. For starters, a year at a typical state university such as K-State costs more than $4,000 counting just tuition and fees. The median household income in Riley County in 2010 was around $39,000, meaning that about half of all local families who want to avoid college debt would essentially have to tithe to that college, and would have to do so before they paid any local, state or federal taxes.

The pattern of reductions in state commitment to higher education shows no sign of reversing and has prompted universities to shift the financial burden onto students. That combined with the largely stagnant economy only further drives the debt burden. 

In recent days, those involved in jobs creation have tried to make the argument that spending on higher education facilitates economic growth. To whatever extent that is true — and we’re not taking issue with it — the shift away from state responsibility is substantially a political reality, and is unlikely to be reversed any time soon.

The logical recourse for those facing increasing debt, including student debt, is eventually to pull back from spending. Indeed, Americans have cut back on several other types of borrowing such as credit card use, with average household indebtedness falling from $105,297 in 2007 to $100,720 in 2010.

That does not appear to be happening with education-related debt, however, presumably because individuals and families have concluded that higher education possesses a value transcending price. The average outstanding college debt increased from $23,349 in 2007 to $26,682 in 2010.

But insensitivity to education costs cannot be presumed. Data released just Thursday by the Kansas Board of Regents raises the question of whether the state’s system may have already reached its point of sensitivity. The Regents reported that enrollment was down 152 students at the public universities.  Fortunately for Manhattan, K-State was an exception to the trend, reporting the largest increase among the state institutions, up 515 students.

But contrast the movement at the seven universities with a 13.4 percent increase at the state’s technical college and it becomes fair to ask whether some families are re-evaluating the usefulness of a four-year college degree if getting that degree forces them into debt.

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