Currently, the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions is holding a series of hearings in anticipation of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The main underlying theme appears to be that the Democrats want to regulate the for-profit colleges and do something about student debt, while the Republicans would like to deregulate higher education and help the “free market” expand its reaches into public higher education. In a recent hearing on student debt, this polarized discourse was mediated by a bipartisan set of misconceptions regarding the costs of higher education.
During his opening statement, ranking Republican member, Lamar Alexander set the stage by arguing that since the average cost for community college was about $3,000 and students receive over $4,000 in aid, some of the money must be going to other things. In fact, Alexander’s own press release entitled, "College More Affordable than Most Students Think,” argues that, “The average community college student in America is receiving about $1,500 more in grants and scholarships than it costs in tuition and fees” The problem with Alexander’s argument is that he fails to take into account the total cost of education (tuition, fees, room, board, books, and living expenses), and so he can pretend that there is no reason for students to borrow, and if they are borrowing, it is for personal pleasure.
According to Alexander, “An Inspector General’s report from the U.S. Department of Education warns that some students borrow excessively for personal expenses not related to their education.” However, it is clear that students need a place to live and they have to buy books for their classes, and so these non-educational expenses are actually the main cause for student debt. The US Department of Education reports that the total annual cost of attendance for a full-time community college student is $13,237, so if students are receiving on average $4,500 in grant funding, they are still on the hook for close to $9,000 per year.
Apparently, not only Alexander fails to understand the difference between the cost of tuition and the total cost of attendance, but also James W. Runcie , Chief Operating Officer of Federal Student Aid of the Department of Education, does not understand why students borrow money to go to college. In response to Alexander’s question about why students are taking out more money than they need, Runcie, (at minute 50) simply says that this is a concern, and the department is looking into possible cases of fraud or abuse. The underlying message Alexander and others are circulating is college students are going into debt because they are borrowing money to spend on leisure items like fancy cars and clothing.
This failure to understand the true cost of attending college is also shaping several recent proposals to make community college freeto students in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Oregon. All of these states are only discussing making tuition free, but most lower- and lower-middle-income students already have their tuition covered by state and federal grants. This means that only upper-income students will receive the new break, and these tuition-free programs may end up cutting additional funding to the non-wealthy students who need aid to pay for the non-tuition aspects of the total cost of attendance. Once again, a progressive sounding policy turns out to be welfare for the wealthy as the non-wealthy continue to get stuck with the bill.