Opinion: Tuition is too high

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In 1983, my mom and dad attended Calvin College. By working summers, receiving the denominational grant and earning several academic scholarships, they were able to graduate with no college debt, despite receiving little or no help from their parents.

Their story wasn’t unusual. Their financial plan was like most Calvin students of their day: work hard, both in and out of school and graduate with little or no college debt.

Calvin’s relatively cheap tuition aided their ability to graduate debt free. In 1983, Calvin’s total tuition and room and board was $7,670 which is less than just my room and board costs ($9,990). I’m receiving the same scholarships as both of my parents and have worked just as many summers as they, but without outside help, I will graduate tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

What changed? Tuition has gone up, far out of proportion to increases in inflation or wages. Calvin’s yearly cost has soared from $10,450 in 1990 to $43,090 today. It has quadrupled in the past 30 years. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, tuition was about one third of the median family income back then. Today it is roughly two thirds.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s CPI Calculator, if Calvin’s room and board and tuition since 1990 had merely kept pace with inflation, Calvin’s one-year cost would be $20,138.72. If Calvin’s one-year cost had tracked inflation since 2005 (cost: $23,955), students now would have to pay “only” $30,841.15.

These absurd raises must end. Calvin should make tuition more reasonable for students.

At a time when Calvin is struggling with its own debt and preparing for declining enrollment, cutting tuition might seem counterintuitive, but I think lower costs would attract more students and give students the ability to manage student debt.

Current analysis of the rising generation (Gen Z) by Forbes and the New York Post shows them to be very fiscally conservative. These students want a rigorous yet affordable degree that prepares them for both a career and a life of Christian service from a school that employers and graduate schools trust. Calvin already provides all but one. Cutting tuition would give Calvin an edge.

Second, the current financial climate–where students must take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt in order to fill the gap between tuition and what they can pay–is unsustainable. This trend mimics the housing bubble pre-2008, where people took out massive loans that they couldn’t pay back to pay for overpriced homes. As a result of these practices, the housing market collapsed in 2008 and struggled to bounce back. I fear that American higher education is marching toward the same fate.

The college debt bubble keeps growing, and universities across America aren’t taking decisive action. Once it pops, schools everywhere will feel the sting. Calvin can’t avoid this hurt, but it can lead the way for fair tuition costs in academia.

Finally, Calvin must consider the moral implications of letting students accumulate five-figure debt. Calvin’s administration has taken steps to alleviate the problem by increasing scholarships and creating the LifeWork program, but it should do more. As a school that strives to be counter-cultural, Calvin should resist the urge to raise tuition just because other schools are doing it or just because student loans are readily available.

Perhaps our future nurses and engineers can manage such debt reasonably, but how many pastors, Christian school teachers or social workers can service tens of thousands of dollars of college debt? Given Calvin’s unique place in higher education as a distinctly Reformed and outstanding liberal arts college, it shouldn’t shy away from another opportunity to stand out. Calvin can help itself and its students by creating a new, cheaper tuition model that delivers an excellent, Reformed education and that frees its graduates from crippling debt.