Central College in Pella grabbed some headlines this week when it announced it was dropping tuition by $20,000 annually.
The sticker price for students will drop from $38,600 to $18,600 beginning in the fall of 2020. That’s a big cut, though it’s worth noting that room and board will remain at a bit above $10,000.
While the decision can be spun in multiple ways, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that it comes as the price of a college education has increasingly become a focus for politicians and voters alike. Once seen as a guaranteed ticket to the middle class, college is often viewed today as a guaranteed ticket to debt.
The days when a student could reasonably work his or her way through college and graduate without debt are gone. The cost of a postsecondary education has skyrocketed. Student aid has also increased, but not at the same pace.
Even with significant aid, many students graduate with bills that will take decades to pay off. Parents, potential students and politicians are finding that increasingly unpalatable given the vast wealth flaunted by some universities, especially through their sports programs.
The current situation poses an obvious risk for students who can find their financial futures jeopardized when they are unable to pay off loans. But there’s a less obvious risk for the schools themselves. If more people view college as a financial burden rather than a key to financial opportunity, the system that pushed so many toward four-year degrees in the past several decades can collapse.
There are some warning signs. Enrollment at Western Illinois University has plunged. In 2008 the school had more than 10,700 students enrolled in undergraduate programs. This fall that figure was less than 6,000. That’s a loss of more than 43 percent.
Small schools may be even more vulnerable. Iowa Wesleyan seriously considered closure less than a year ago due to financial shortfalls. It narrowly avoided that fate, leaving the doors open for its 600 or so students.
We’re not sure there is a single solution that can work for all schools or all students. One-size-fits-all rarely works for industries as varied as higher education.
What we are sure of is that some way must be found to restore the belief that a college education means something more than a mountain of debt in exchange for questionable job security.
Education sells itself as a promise more than anything else. It offers itself as a gateway to a better, more secure future. The link is easy to see with basic skills such as reading and writing. It is increasingly blurry when viewed through a financial lens.
A future that fails to restore that promise, to make it a clear path for improvement, is one that places both educational institutions and would-be students at risk. And, ultimately, it is one that will carry penalties for us as a nation.
Slashing prices may be in order for some schools. And we commend Central College for looking at whether such a decision was right for it. But the systemic issues remain, and will continue until the education industry undergoes deep self-examination and makes some tough decisions.