Who’s Funding It Anyway?

By Melanie Ojwang

Rising tuition fees are always on the minds of students and their families. Many students struggle to afford a higher education that they believe is worth the price. While other similarly industrialized countries share US beliefs on the necessity of higher education, their policies on tuition vary greatly. 

In the US during the 2014-2015 academic year, the College Board found that the average cost of tuition and fees at private institutions was $31,231 while public institutions charged $9,139 for in-state residents and $22,958 for out-of-state residents. 

Differences in tuition are due to differences in funding. Historically, state governments would pay for most of the cost of public colleges while private colleges would depend upon tuition and private contributions. Recently public institutions have had to make changes to how they are able to pay for their facilities and staff. In January of 2015, the Huffington Post reported that students’ tuition provide more funding for public colleges and universities than state governments. 

The change in funding and tuition can be startling when compared to institutions abroad. Several countries within the European Union depend mostly on state funding and have much lower fees. Fees for residents and international students can vary from $11 (€9.50) a credit in Spain to $12,000(€10000) a semester in Denmark. Some, such as Norway and Finland, only charge fees for Non-EU students or for classes taught in languages other than the official languages. 

Germany stands out as an extraordinary case. Early in 2015, the country abolished tuition and fees. Higher education is free for German citizens and international students. This is possible because all schools are publicly funded. In addition to receiving government money, German universities also receive a budget in which they must make a regularly negotiated agreement with the state government about fund usage. Such funding means higher taxes for citizens and has many schools feeling as if they are underfunded. Also a major issue arises in the differences of education quality and funding in poorer states as opposed to their wealthier counterparts. However the general public agrees that higher education is a public service that should be state funded. 

Hamburg senator Dorothee Stapelfeldt stated that “it is a core task of politics to ensure that young women and men can study with a high quality standard free of charge in Germany.”

But there are EU countries that more resemble the US. In the United Kingdom, tuition fees were not introduced until 1998, but they have been climbing since. By 2000, Scotland had abolished their tuition fees for EU students, but within the rest of the UK tuition fees remain for all students. Within England and Wales, the most expensive, universities can charge a maximum of $14,115 (£9,000) per year and up to $57,401 (£36,600) for international students. All public universities are partially funded by the government, but student fees provide a large amount of funds as well. Budget cuts have led to higher tuition rates to compensate for the lack of government money. 

Within the UK, there is a loan system in place in which the loan, and its repayment, is dependent upon the student’s income. As fees and loan interest increased, students began to take out more in loans than they could pay back within the 30 year expiration date. As a result, some graduates cannot or do not pay back loans while others pay back more than they borrowed. 

The argument that tuition fees are fair because all citizens should not be taxed for the education of a few is countered by the position that the fees prevent students from lower income families from pursuing a higher education. While Germany has found a solution, the UK is still struggling to discover a balance. 

As for the United States, tuition does not appear to be lowering or disappearing anytime soon, although the government could afford to give public institutions more funding. The amount of government money given out in loans, $107.4 billion as reported by ThinkProgress in 2014, is almost double of that needed to cover tuition for all public universities. However the budget cuts that followed the recession along with costs for facilities meant to attract and retain more students has led to rising tuition fees. 

Tuition hikes can be attributed to a competitive consumer mentality shared by schools and students. From smaller classes and gourmet meal-plans to free laptops and high quality furniture, several institutions have resorted to advertising more than their educational benefits. The price for these luxuries becomes a hidden part of tuition and fees, but the perks meant to entice prospective students are successful. In agreeing to these amenities, students demonstrate the power of appealing to simple desires but also highlight a belief amongst Americans that the college experience should encompass more than just an academic experience.  

Rising tuition also reflects the idea that students can afford increasing costs and should have a larger part than the government in funding institutions, despite the rising amount of student loans and debt. Shifting the financial burden onto the student fuels the idea of higher education as a business. 

Federal loans, which make up the vast majority of student loans, have a major function in the economic aspect of higher education. As opposed to giving funds to colleges and universities, the government can earn a profit through high interest rates, even if students have to default on loans that are then paid by taxpayers. Private loans pose a greater threat with higher interest rates and also benefit from students who pay back more than their loan was worth or have to default. Both loan systems thrive because of the increasing belief that the student should pay for a greater portion of their education, especially as institutions insist that attending their school means more than going to classes.  

It would require a shift in mentality and an adjusted budget before the financial aspect of the education system is affected on a grand scale, but there is the possibility of change. President Obama’s recent executive action has aided with relieving federal student loan repayments. Suggestions for restructuring our current system, with functions like more online classes or decentralized universities, to lower tuition costs have been offered. For the time being, however, students will have to continue to grapple with rising tuition costs.

Melanie Ojwang is a senior at McDaniel College majoring in English and Sociology. McDaniel College is the location of the Delta of Maryland chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.