Thirty-eight percent of U.S. high school seniors in a recent Princeton Review survey said they are more worried about college debt than getting into the school of their choice, TheBlaze reported earlier this month.
And it appears their worries are well-founded: the average college senior in 2012 graduated with an average of nearly $27,000 in student loan debt, according to CNN Money.
"Two-thirds of the class of 2011 held student loans upon graduation, and the average borrower owed $26,600,” the report states. “That’s up 5% from 2010 and is the highest level of debt in the seven years the report has been published.”
Georgia State University, University Commons. From the Fiscal Times' description: "Students (most of them freshmen) at this gated-community complex of 8- to 15-story apartment buildings get a fully furnished private room in a suite that includes either two or four bedrooms and one or two baths. Each suite comes with a fully equipped kitchen and a living room. Bedrooms are wired with high-speed Ethernet, a high-speed voice link, and cable TV--wifi also is available throughout the complex. There’s also a convenience store, mail delivery, health clinic, and 24-hour security."
Additionally, it sounds like we’re creating a bubble: outstanding student loan debt stands at about $956 billion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit.
“Student debt increased by 4.6 percent in the third quarter from the previous quarter — when annualized, that’s almost a 20 percent rate of increase,” CBS MoneyWatch notes.
So what’s going on here? Why are so many students graduating with so much in debt?
Jonathan Zimmerman in a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times says students are being strapped with more debt because colleges have turned into mini-county clubs.
“Put simply, today's American colleges shower students with absurdly lavish bills of goods and services. No wonder it's so hard for them to pay their own bills when they get out,” Zimmerman writes, describing the campuses he visited recently with his daughter.
“[Oberlin college] recently opened a $24-million music building featuring a glass walking bridge and a naturally lit ‘Sky Lounge,’” he adds.
“And the school's sport facilities include a 25-foot climbing wall and a 360-square-foot ‘bouldering cave.’”
But it doesn’t end there. There are many more examples of extravagant collegiate amenities:
Other colleges outfit their dormitories with hot tubs, HD television sets and more. At USC, the recently opened West 27th Place luxury apartment complex boasts a walk-in tanning booth — called the Sundazzler — along with decorative fountains, tiled roofs and landscaped sidewalks. Its kitchens feature granite countertops and ice makers, just in case someone feels like mixing a margarita.
Granted, the complex is not official university housing, but it was built to serve USC students. Its developer, American Campus Communities, which describes itself as "the nation's premier owner and manager of luxurious, academically oriented student housing," advertises the complex as "an off-campus student community that is built specifically with you, the college student, in mind." Since when do college students need "luxurious" student housing?
Still, it doesn’t end there. In the more "selective" and prestigious schools, the luxuries only become more exaggerated, according to a recent University of Michigan study.
“Students applying to these colleges are more likely to make their decisions based on a school's amenities, not its academics,” Zimmerman continues.
“Perhaps that's why a new residence hall at St. Leo University in Florida boasts a 2,100-gallon aquarium and a ‘relaxation room’ with big-screen televisions and ‘spherical nap pods.’”
Wait, what the hell is a “spherical nap pod”?
“Only in recent years did colleges start to resemble country clubs, with a few classrooms thrown in. Competing for students, universities also competed to see who could build the nicest dorms, gyms and stadiums,” Zimmerman writes.
And you know who ends up paying for all of this, right? The students, of course (after all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch).
The luxuries pile up, the cost of tuition rises, students take out more debt, and next thing you know, student debt is “more than the total amount that Americans owe on their credit cards,” Zimmerman notes.
Not a very good model, is it?
To be sure, some of the new college construction is bankrolled by individual donors, who often prefer to fund buildings that can bear their names rather than scholarships or research. But private gifts to universities plummeted after the 2008 recession, while construction picked up. Between 2010 and 2012, colleges and universities spent $22 billion on new facilities, or twice as much as they were spending a decade earlier. And with fewer private donations, some colleges are taking on debt to fund construction, debt that is likely to be passed on to students and their families.
So here’s a thought: “What if universities declared a moratorium on new construction?”
No, really, why not? The current student debt/tuition model is unsustainable. Why not a moratorium?
Purdue University, First Street Towers. From Fiscal Times' description: "Built in 2009 for $52 million, this dorm has single air-conditioned rooms with private baths arranged in clusters around a central living room-dinette area. Two student lounges on each floor offer 47-inch flat-screen TVs, custom-designed entertainment centers, and ceramic-tiled kitchenettes. For these extras residents pay a $5,000 premium a year, according to the Chicago Tribune. (Purdue University/Andrew Hancock)
“It's not as crazy as it sounds. At my own institution, New York University, faculty and students have been protesting a projected $6-billion expansion,” he concludes.
“It's likely to add to students' debt, which is already 40% higher than the national average. And lots of nice new stuff won't prepare them for life after graduation, which won't be nearly as cushy,” he adds.
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