Tonawanda News

August 23, 2013

OUR VIEW: College spending reform needed

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — College students and their families should be grateful President Obama elevated an issue that’s pressing pocketbooks across the country into the national discourse. College, whether a two-year or four-year school, is a necessity that is increasingly priced as a luxury, leaving graduates to pay down a mountain of debt just as they take their fist steps into independence and adulthood.

After two days spent focusing on this issue a few statistics jump off the page: The average four-year college graduate leaves school with $26,000 in debt. The cost of college has risen 250 percent over the last three decades but the median income has only risen by about 15 percent making the idea of starting a college fund with a few dollars a week stashed in a piggy bank in a child’s infancy impossible. If parents really want to save for a child’s college education adults probably needed to start when they were children, not when their own children were born.

And while we’re heartened the president addressed this important issue — and that he chose to do so here in Western New York — some of his proposals miss the mark.

His broadest reform proposal includes instituting new college evaluations conducted by the federal Department of Education. We agree students and parents need a more comprehensive, understandable rubric by which to evaluate schools. As is the case with most education reforms, however, the devil is in the details. Grading colleges’ performance relative to cost and graduates’ success in finding gainful employment is important but it isn’t the only defining factor in what makes a school the right choice. Most universities specialize in certain fields of study and that can distort the picture.

Take the president’s host, the University at Buffalo, as an example: A student seeking to study medicine or biology would weigh UB higher than other schools that don’t have a renown focus on the field. A simple top sheet analysis of the generic UB student irrespective of discipline diminishes the school’s appearance and might prompt prospective students to look elsewhere.

Given this reality, tying college evaluations to federal funding as the president seeks is a risky proposition. We would much prefer to treat the evaluations as a useful advisory tool for students. 

A second proposal, one that’s already on the books but rarely used, is capping a graduate’s student loan payment to 10 percent of their income. That sounds like a reasonable idea but it could be tweaked.

What many graduates would say is they need help immediately with student loan payments. Extending the grace period for starting repayment from six months after graduation to 12 would be an excellent start. Given the persistently high unemployment rate among young people an extra six months to find a job and establish yourself as an economically independent adult would make a huge difference.

And we would add that the cap should be more flexible. Including a sunset provision of seven to 10 years or gradually increasing the cap offers students an incentive to pay off their loans quicker rather than wait when they could afford to pay more sooner. Offering graduates a lifetime cap on their maximum payment sets the bar too low and would in many instances needlessly extend the life of the loan leading to more interest paid over time.

Policy differences aside, we salute the president for addressing the topic and hope lawmakers in Washington take heed — higher education reform is both critical and necessary.