How can the U.S. help bring down the cost of college?

President Joe Biden’s decision to forgive some student loan debt came as a relief to many borrowers. But it was also marked by many for what the policy didn’t do.

By Michael MarksAugust 26, 2022 5:28 pm,

President Joe Biden’s decision to forgive some student loan debt came as a relief to many borrowers. But it was also marked by many for what the policy didn’t do – namely, address the systemic issues in higher education that have led to such a debt and affordability problem in the first place. Clearly, this country needs solutions to help bring down the cost of college. But what?

For some ideas we turned to Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream.” Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Could you help us understand how the relative cost of college has changed over the past 30 to 40 years? 

Sara Goldrick-Rab: The biggest thing that most people have experienced is not really a change in cost, per se – meaning what colleges go through in order to deliver education – but rather a change in the price that’s being passed on to individual families. And essentially what has changed the most is that the state that you live in, whether it’s Texas or whether it’s Pennsylvania, has decided to pay for less of the total cost. So it used to be the case 30 years ago [that] you would pay maybe a quarter of the cost, and today you pay three-quarters.

So what levers are available to colleges and institutions if there were an incentive – or the political will – to bring down the cost of a college education?

There’s a couple of different things, and a lot of them are being tried throughout Texas right now. One of them is to help students better cover their living expenses without needing debt. So, for example, housing is the most expensive thing that everybody handles every day, and it’s not any different for college students. They’re not mainly living in residence halls on campuses. Making housing more affordable and making it normal for people to go back to really commuting to campus, frankly, and living places that they can afford will help to lower the cost.

Another major strategy that’s really important is to make better use of your amazing Texas community colleges. They’re everywhere throughout your state. They’re a great start, and nobody needs to stigmatize them and make them seem like they’re not as good a place to go. They’re a terrific place.

» MORE: How Biden’s student loan forgiveness will impact Texans

I think a lot of folks are very impressed with the community college system in Texas. But having said that, somebody’s got to foot the bill. And right now, it’s parents or the students themselves who are having to deal with these debts. So where does that money come from if the state is not willing to put it directly into the universities themselves? 

So the interesting thing is that Texas as a state is leaving a lot of federal money that it’s already entitled to on the table. As a quick example, parents don’t need to pay so much for food. If Texas got students connected more to a program called SNAP, it would help them to lower their grocery bills. And taxpayers in Texas don’t pay an additional dime for it; they already paid. And the federal government dollars are being drawn down in places like California because Texas doesn’t have the right policies in place. The state doesn’t actually have to make too many changes. They’ve just got to decide to use the money that they’ve already spent efficiently.

When you talk to people, particularly young people, who are weighing the expense of college education today or higher ed in general, what is your general advice to them?

I mean, first of all, to consider community college as a first step. That’s really, really important.

Not to be reaching too far beyond what their family’s finances can actually afford, for the most part. I think sometimes it’s like, you know, you need a car, but your parents feel like they got to buy you a Porsche even though they cannot afford it. That’s not a good idea. They should also make choices that make sure that how they live during college aligns with what they can financially afford so they don’t find themselves in so much debt later on.

And then the last thing is honestly, vote like this stuff matters. Choose people to vote for who do have plans for ways to lower the cost of college. That issue has been way too far down the pole for a long time, and people need to raise it up and, you know, fix it together.

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