Most people agree and believe that good education prepares students for life and provides the means to achieve a brilliant and successful future. The question is, can we afford that education? Although I know the cost of a college education has risen over the years, as a parent of a now 17 year old High School graduate who’s heading to college this year, I’m now faced with the harsh realities that most American families are dealing with, when it comes to this subject. 

Rising costs.

Costs of education in the US and globally have skyrocketed. Other factors have caused financial concerns that complicate the issue while views on what secures a good stable future for the new generation have slanted away from formal ‘learning’. Studies on increased local and individual costs cite government funding cuts and the higher cost of living as culprits but this is just part of the story. Tuition fees, administration costs, security, updating technologies and modernizing school buildings are some of the factors considered. Underpinning these economic studies are social concerns. A second question is, how much should be spent on nurturing the promise in every young person?

Primary Education

The American system of education is structured and financed differently from countries in Europe and elsewhere. However, there are two parallel principles: primary education should be free to all and compulsory. This puts the burden on national (federal) and/or state and local funding for students up to the age of 18 (variable per state) and the costs are in billions. A report by the National Center for Educational Statistics (www.nces.ed.gov) on US primary education expenditure in the year 2016-17 placed this figure at $739 billion and it is still rising. The figure is met largely from local property taxation and creates problems of equity in poorer communities. Increased pressure may come onto parents to pay for extra tuition to enable their children to compete with more advantaged students. It follows that it is likely that parents in these areas will be the hardest pushed to find those additional costs. A survey by Grade Power puts the current figure at between $1,017 and $12,011 per year. For private school students, these numbers are considerably higher.

Higher Education

Extra-curricular activities and one-to-one tuition are voluntary and although the costs may be a burden that families feel are necessary, the overall responsibility for basic education lies with government. Higher education (college and university) is also voluntary but deemed essential for those aspiring for their children to make successful and lucrative careers. It is in this sector of education that escalating costs are so challenging to students, parents and peer groups. A report produced by CNBC Make it showed that by the end of 2019 costs of putting a student through college had risen by an average of 25% over 10 years. The same review, citing data gleaned from The College Board, concluded that most families/students felt it a worthwhile investment with college graduates achieving 80% higher salaries than those with high school diplomas. Even so, the estimated costs in both the public and private sector are high enough to put financial strains on many families who may be wondering if it’s worth it. Perhaps the money could be better spent to benefit these precious young people and provide for the future. Scouring reports on job losses, failing businesses, and unemployment rates may become a regular worrying pastime.

Competition for places at higher education facilities is becoming fiercer so adding strings to bows accounts for a lot of extra expenses. Sporting activities, languages, music and the arts, community projects, anything that enhances the student’s basic grades CV is going to empty the family’s pockets. CNBC suggests that the current yearly expenditure is about $48,510 at private colleges and $21,370 at public colleges. While student loans will surely help to shoulder that burden but at what real cost to the student?

Student Debt

The student loan scheme undoubtedly has many benefits, especially for those whose opportunities would otherwise be limited. However, the burden of debt on the young is something many question. The student years or stepping out into adult life is a volatile and highly emotional time. Financial pressures will come soon enough with mortgages, car loans and setting up an independent lifestyle. Starting out with the weight and concern of student loans is a situation that some young people simply may not be able to cope with. The sacrifices some families may have made for their children’s education could perhaps have been used, at least in part, to provide help with those very things that are needed during and in post-college days.  CNBC reports that by 2020 student debts had doubled in 10 years and collectively Americans owed $1.7 trillion in student debts. Personal loans add to that figure and again the question arises, can we afford the current costs of educating our young people?

Covid-19 Pandemic

The pandemic has impacted every area of our lives and in almost every country. It has in fact been revolutionary. Like all revolutions, there are casualties – high casualties in this instance – yet the human spirit of hope and determination to rebuild can also produce a positive outcome. The information age, which began half a century ago, has reached its objectives in this period of lockdowns and reliance on digital communications. Homeschooling and internet-based courses replaced traditional methods, not merely as an adjunct but as the new way of learning. The intention was meant to be a temporary response to a crisis but may now transform education and its associated costs in the 21st century.