“Endless Summer” is the title of both a documentary on surfing and a Beach Boys album, but summers are only endless in our most wistful imagining – as July winds down, that means that students will be migrating back to classrooms in just a few weeks.
And what will be striking about the return to college and universities this fall is that more than half the students enrolled in those institutions will not be living on campus. According to a report released last week by the student loan provider Sallie Mae, 52 percent of students nationwide will be commuting to their classes in the upcoming academic year. This is a 9 percent leap in the number of commuters since 2010. If this is the first time there have been more commuters than dorm-room denizens, it represents a noteworthy shift in how Americans experience their undergraduate years.
The reasons for this transformation are not surprising. With the costs of higher education creeping relentlessly higher – Pennsylvania’s state-affiliated schools recently unveiled a 3 percent tuition hike – students are picking colleges and universities in less far-flung locales, and opting to stay in their own bedrooms at their parents’ abodes, rather than living in dorms. While dorm living can be chaotic and distracting, it can also yield lifelong friendships, provide students with a taste of independent living and decision-making and put them closer to the center of the campus community.
Sallie Mae also found that students are having to shoulder more of the burden of their college education thanks to the declining contributions of their parents, who are facing their own daunting pocketbook challenges, and that’s happening just as grant money and scholarships are becoming more scarce. Parents are now footing the bill for 37 percent of their child’s college expenses, a 10 percent drop in the last three years.
But even as college costs have ballooned by more than 1,000 percent since 1978, according to a report last year from Bloomberg News (compared to a 600 percent increase for health care and a 375 percent increase for housing), most families and students agree that they have little alternative in the matter – attaining an undergraduate degree is a virtual necessity if you want to gain a foothold in the middle class, particularly as well-paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared and been replaced with far less remunerative service-sector employment.
Struggle with loan debt or struggle to get by, period. That, increasingly, is the choice students have to make.
The long-term model for how higher education is financed will have to change if we don’t want to saddle young people with increasing amounts of debt, which will only serve to weaken their own prospects in life and slow economic growth. Tuition costs have risen as state support has lagged, and a report published in March by the National Association of State Budget Officers found that higher education has taken a bigger hit from budget-cutting in state capitals when compared to other programs, such as prisons.
While officials at colleges and universities should continue to find ways to make their campuses operate more efficiently, lawmakers should reinvigorate their commitment to funding higher education. Your typical legislator is always ready to serve up rhetoric about helping the middle class; finding ways to make higher education more affordable would go some way toward putting the rhetoric into action.