Friday, 21 Feb 2020

Opinion | The Middle-Class Struggle to Pay for College

To the Editor:

Re “The Cost of College for the Middle Class” (Sunday Review, Sept. 1):

Caitlin Zaloom opens by discussing how the average cost to attend a private, four-year university is $50,000 per year. This is the approximate average sticker price of these institutions. However, the amount actually paid after scholarships and tax benefits are deducted is well less than this — about $27,000 last year, or just a little more than half of the sticker price.

It is also important to remember that only about one in six undergraduates attend college in this sector. About 80 percent of students attend public institutions, where both the sticker and net prices are even more affordable, with the remainder in for-profit colleges.

Yes, middle-class families face challenges in paying for college. But sensationalizing the issue by focusing on a small proportion of all students serves only to diminish the arguments being made. Let’s start with factual data about the real price burden facing the majority of families before we start debating solutions.

Donald E. Heller
San Francisco
The writer is provost and vice president of academic affairs at the University of San Francisco.

To the Editor:

Caitlin Zaloom overlooks one of the fundamental problems that has accompanied increasing anxiety about the cost of college: elitism.

Most middle-class families would have little financial trouble sending their children to state universities. Unfortunately, many are caught up in the class-based bias that public universities have classes brimming with weak students and offer a poor education. They are wrong.

State universities all over the country offer an education that ranges from solid to outstanding, and students from even the weakest state schools can and do go on to successful professional careers, top graduate schools, government jobs and other promising trajectories in every imaginable field.

Few middle-class students need to come out of college tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

Perhaps if we embrace public education, we will have not only fewer young people with debt, but also a more balanced and less unequal society.

Lisa L. Miller
The writer, a professor at Rutgers University, is a state university graduate and the parent of state university students.

To the Editor:

Caitlin Zaloom’s excellent essay points out how the cost of a college degree, “which has tripled at public colleges and universities in the past three decades,” forces middle-class families into financial insecurity.

But why does college cost so much today? Why has the cost of higher education far, far outstripped the rise in the cost of living? With many colleges hiring increasing numbers of adjunct teachers, the answer does not lie in the cost of teaching.

There are far more administrators today than 30 years ago. Many of them make egregiously high salaries. They are also spending huge sums on new buildings and renovations. A thorough analysis may show that tuition payments are subsidizing these substantial costs.

Jane S. Gabin
Chapel Hill, N.C.
The writer is an educational consultant.

To the Editor:

My colleague Caitlin Zaloom articulates my greatest frustration as an undergraduate dean at New York University. Middle-class students may be concerned about future debt, but their low-income peers are struggling to stay in school. Usually they have exhausted all financial options. Maybe I have empathy for my students because as an undergraduate I worked three jobs to barely pay for a state college.

I know they are thinking more about paying tuition than studying for exams. I also know that they are feeling an extremely high level of stress and embarrassment. It becomes hard to think about anything else. To New York University’s and other schools’ credit, they are trying to do more for these students, but the situation may be more than the administration can handle. It is certainly more than the students can.

Robert L. Hawkins
New York
The writer is a faculty member at the N.Y.U. Silver School of Social Work.

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