I am NOT a US taxpayer.

If you feel I am consequently not allowed to contribute to the conversation, please put me on “ignore” right now. (Looking at you, Indigo dear).

I actually do have some informed views on the subject, because I work in international student finance, and because I have been monitoring the tuition situation at top universities in English speaking countries for awhile, for professional and private reasons. I believe that the top universities worldwide increasingly compete for the highest capability students worldwide and that, vice versa, these students should (and increasingly will) be looking at an international educational market. And most of us on this board are raising some of those kids. The US colleges, on the hunt to attract international talent at full pay, to lose homegrown talent to more affordable and predictable schools abroad.

I believe (and would assume that most on this board believe) that a society shouldn’t waste their best talents (sort of the reason this board exists, right?) so governments should ensure that those kids who benefit very much from the education at a good 4 year college should be able to obtain that education without huge financial and administrative hurdles that a 17 year old high school student can’t begin to navigate on his own.

And I hope most of us agree that a student should be able to spend the majority of their time on their studies (so work less than 20 hours a week on the side) in order to do well and graduate in 4 years, and be able to live, not in luxury, but at least in housing conditions that do not endanger their health and safety.

Someone over on college confidential, where I have been (mostly) lurking diligently for a long time in order to understand the legal and financial situation regarding the cost of tertiary education in the US pointed out that if experienced posters unanimously tell students it is completely inadvisable to take out more than the 27 k Stafford loans, with the exception of a few highly employable degrees like engineering or CS, where you might take out as much as one years starting salary (so, maybe, 70 k?), and there is no college in existence in the US where you can obtain a 4 year degree with that sum it essentially means *it isn’t worth it*! I felt that post didn’t nearly get the attention it deserved.

So, in comes the government, to bring college costs down.

I posit that as soon as the government “meddles” and thus distorts a market, you need regulations. One of the regulations I’d propose would be “unbundling” in order to create financial transparency and stop cross subsidising.

First thing I’d unbundle would be living costs. The government could offer every student who is enrolled at an accredited institution and in good academic standing grants and loans to cover room, board, books and incidentals and require every college that receives federal monies and that offers dorms and cafeteria service to offer a bed and a meal plan at a cost that is capped, indexed to the living costs of the area, and covered by that sum, for four years.

The student could be required to finance incidentals beyond that (“beer money”) by working 10 hours a week for minimum wage or so - or not, their choice. Students who do not dorm could simply receive the money with no strings attached. The proportion of grants vs loans, should depend on the parents FAFSA EFC. Thus, students from low income families get the full amount in grants, students with high EFCs in loans. And every combination in between. This assured that if your family can’t or won’t pay the EFC, anyone can survive 4 years at college with a student job. It is almost inconceivable to me that college costs are calculated according on the parents income, but the parents are not legally required to support their child at all. Makes no legal sense to me. But there it is and in the current system, a student in that situation has NO recourse and is dependent on finding a full ride merit scholarship which are hard to find even for highly capable kids (particularly at an institution that can meet those kids‘ needs) which puts them into an extremely insecure situation, with all sorts of unpredictable results. In extreme cases, the student can be shut out.

A student in my (European) country is required to live on (the equivalent of) 800 $ a month, dorms or no dorms, and usually there are no dorms, so students need to find an apartment, with an additional stipend of 90 $ once the student ages out of their parents health coverage (and public health insurance is then required to accept and cover the student at that cost). I see no reason why a US college couldn’t feed and house a US student at at cost, in double rooms, often in the middle of nowhere. With the COL index, of course it might be much more expensive to study in Boston or NYC, and the loan portion will go up accordingly. Duh. That’s fair. You need subsidies, find a good college in a low COL area, there’s plenty. Or try to get a accepted to a college with deep pockets that can afford to subsidise housing from its endowment.

8 months at 800 $ makes 6400 a year. Times four years makes 25600. Depending on the COL at the college of your choice. That should work. And that would be it for student loans, for anyone.

So, if you subsidise AND cap, you can’t distort the market upwards,

But students still need to pay tuition. If you can get accepted at a meets full need college and the colleges FA calculation works for you, you’re sorted. Of it doesn’t, because the college the student can gain acceptance to does not meet full need or the students family can’t or won’t pay the EFC the college came up with, again the student has no recourse, but is dependent on finding merit scholarships to cover the difference. Again, unpredictable situation which can at worst lead to the student being shut out. (Or the parents and students together overloading on plus loans).

What would help? Not even necessarily more money. Just predictability and transparency, beyond the net price calculators that only work for married employees anyway, not for business owners, not for applicants with non custodial parents, and rarely for applicants hunting merit.

Private colleges won’t and needn’t be transparent and predictable about cost and merit. But public schools should have to be, with schools offering binding FA prereads and merit offers automatically rising as you go down the desirability food chain until there is a chance to gain full tuition *somewhere* in state, and for, very highly capable students, even at the flagship, maybe on condition of being offered admittance to the honours college. It does come at the detriment of public schools using holistic criteria. But as a lawyer, I’d say that a public entity should be required to only use criteria that are transparent and predictable. This doesn’t mean academic merit only, they could consider level of interest or high SES or first gen or relevant extracurriculars, but in a way that is transparent and understandable to the student before they apply, for instance using a points system. It should be a state’s responsibility to offer an appropriate education to the states college ready kids, within the limits of affordability.

There IS a school for everyone that is affordable and hopefully the states make sure that is also suitable, eg by offering honours colleges at lower ranked schools for their more highly capable students, but at the moment the admissions landscape in the US is so opaque that students may be unable to find it.

Fees? For rec centers, lazy rivers, clubs, athletics? If they enhance the educational experience or students health, by all means include them in the tuition. If they don’t? It’s luxury. Have it financed out of the endowment, out of alumni donations, make competitive athletics self supporting. If the afford to subsidise those at the states schools, don’t. No frills education works, too. Just don’t put it on students.

I think the states‘ taxpayers may also reasonably demand a cap on out of state and international enrolment, within the limits of what actually benefits the school academically as opposed to financially.

Tl;dr: it is the lack of financial transparency and predictability that pushes tuition up and overburdens students and those families. Unbundle college costs, only subsidise (and cap!) living costs, make admission and merit transparent and predictable for all public (or publicly supported, for instance by tax relief, but that would of course, ooops, include almost all private schools) institutions.

BTW, I do not like that in some European systems that are very low tuition and offer very generous terms for living allowances, students have almost no skin in the game at all. This leads to other undesirable distortions. But the debt load that would be, at worst, required should not exceed a sum that oils be considered a reasonable investment, and should not be required to be paid up front, and should be somewhat tied to a students earnings. (Colleges should have skin in the game as well!)