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Higher education: Right or privilege?

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For many families, the cost of higher education is out of reach, while others can manage it only if they take on debt that could take decades to pay off.

President Obama, meanwhile, has lofty goals for higher education. In his first joint address to Congress, in 2009, the president said that the United States should “once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

To be first again, the Education Department says, 60 percent of young adults would have to obtain an associate or bachelor’s degree by 2020. That means 8 million more young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 would have to earn their degrees.

“Every American will need to get more than a high school diploma,” Obama said.

But how are families going to achieve this when the sticker price for a college education has roughly tripled since 1980 in inflation-adjusted dollars?

To reach Obama’s goal, we have to decide, as a matter of public policy, whether college is a right or a privilege.

In the United States, graduates who received a bachelor’s degree in 2008 borrowed 50 percent more (in inflation-adjusted dollars) than their counterparts who graduated in 1996, according to a report released last year by the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project.

Among borrowers, the average debt for recipients of bachelor’s degrees increased 36 percent, from $17,075 in 1996 to $23,287 in 2008. But that average borrowing figure masks the pain felt by many students and graduates. We know many are strapped with an oppressive amount of debt that requires them to stretch payments out for 20 to 30 years. We’ve come to expect high debt for students getting medical or legal training because there’s a promise of high salaries. Increasingly, however, students with no promise of six-figure salaries are accumulating loans with six-figure balances.

So here we are in graduation season, and two studies released this week by Pew provide insight on what people think about the cost of college. One survey polled the general public, including graduates. The other, in association with the Chronicle of Higher Education, surveyed the presidents of 1,055 two-year and four-year private, public and for-profit colleges and universities.

In the general-public poll, 75 percent of respondents said college is just too expensive. Among respondents 18 to 34 who did not have a bachelor’s degree and aren’t enrolled in school, 48 percent said they couldn’t afford a college education.

The cost is making people wonder whether college is worth it. In the survey of the general public, a majority of respondents said they don’t believe the higher-education system is providing students with good value for the money.

Among all survey respondents who took out college loans and are no longer in school, about half said that paying back the loan has made it harder to make ends meet, 25 percent said it has made it difficult to buy a home, 24 percent said it has had an impact on the kind of career they are pursuing, and 7 percent said they have delayed getting married or starting a family.

Even a majority of college presidents said most people cannot afford a college education today.

So if it’s in the best interest of the country to educate people so they can qualify for better-paying jobs, who should foot the college bill?

College presidents overwhelmingly said that students and their families should pay the largest share of the cost of a college education. The public doesn’t agree, with only 48 percent favoring this approach to footing the bill. The majority believes the federal government, states, private donations and endowments, or some combination of the four, should cover the cost.

Had it not been for a full scholarship to college, I could not have afforded to go without borrowing. My degree and lack of student debt have helped elevate not just my personal financial standing but also that of many in my family.

There are those who will decry even asking if college is a right or a privilege. Nonetheless, the question must be asked and answered.

If going to college is a right and vital to our nation’s economic standing, then government will have to do more to make it affordable for all. If it’s a privilege, only the nation’s wealthiest families will one day be able to send their children to college. Or are we damning a large percentage of our citizens to burdensome student loans, leaving them to conclude college isn’t worth it?

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com. Questions are welcomed, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible.

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