Tuition, not interest rates, should be focus of higher education affordability

Recently, President Barack Obama has urged Congress to freeze current federally subsidized student loan interest rates at 3.4 percent.

“We can’t make higher education a luxury,” he said during a rally in North Carolina. “It’s an economic imperative. Every American family should be able to afford it.”

The problem, though, is that Obama’s suggestion to cap interest rates on loans misses the fundamental point he articulates in this quote: the problem is that colleges, not loans, are becoming unaffordable. Instead of talking about interest rates on loan payments, the conversation should be centered on tuition rates. Instead of the federal government capping interest rates on loans, the federal government should be capping the max amount a public college can charge for tuition, allowing for increases due to inflation.

We acknowledge that this is a bold claim. But we are living in times that call for bold claims. As our president said, every American family should be able to afford post-secondary education, and that means every American family should be able to afford tuition. Loans put people in debt and thus do no more than create the illusion of affordability, just as Obama’s and Congress’ discussion of interest rates creates the illusion of tackling the issue of college affordability.

We do not feel that we ought to argue for the necessity of an affordable higher education system; the president and numerous other people have already made that argument. So working under that assumption of the necessity of affordability, we believe it’s time to rethink the notion of affordability itself.

We have seen the decimation of funding for public higher education play out state by state over the past decade, especially here in New York and in California. Just as painful as these cuts, though, has been the fact that private institutions continue to have incredibly high tuition rates compared with public institutions.

In 2011 – 2012, the average tuition and room and board for four-year public colleges was $17,131 according to College Board. The same academic year, the average tuition and room and board for four-year private nonprofit institutions was $38,589. That’s more than a $20,000 difference. As such, we believe that a federal cap should be applied to private as well as public institutions.

Again, this is a bold claim. But again, we believe the context warrants the claim. It is the job of the government to provide for the welfare of its citizens, and in the 21st century that welfare includes – or at least should include – higher education. The regulation of college tuition would constitute the minimum provision of this welfare, but it’s a start.

It is high time all people in this country were able to afford to attend institutions of higher education without going into debt. Telling someone they can pay their bills later is not actually making anything affordable. It is putting up a smokescreen. Instead, we want to strike through the mask and make college itself essentially affordable for all.