Kitchen Table Economics

Back to School and Back to Debt

It’s that time of year again. Time for teenagers and other young adults to clock in the last couple hours at the summer job or internship, pack up their stuff, and head back to campus for another semester of college. But for many Americans, heading back to school doesn’t just mean insightful classes, late nights with friends, and all-nighters studying—for many, it means back to worrying about college debt.

Since 1980, the yearly cost of attending college has more than quadrupled—skyrocketing from $2,340 to $9,648 for one year of tuition and fees. These inflated costs have caused college graduates to amass $1.3 trillion of student loan debt.

The price spikes can be attributed to a number of factors, but one stands out from all the rest as the reason why so many college graduates are drowning in debt—the government.

Over the years, the federal government has increasingly inserted itself into American higher education by subsidizing college attendance through tuition assistance programs. In 2016, the federal government spent $22.5 billion on one of these programs—commonly referred to as a Pell Grant—which was roughly double what it spent on the same program in the early 2000s.

While these types of programs do artificially lower the cost of attending college for a little while, the more free money that is offered through these financial assistance packages eventually contributes to increases in the same college costs that they are attempting to control.

Consider the following scenario: A Boy Scout is going door to door selling popcorn for $5.00. However, the government starts giving popcorn consumers $2 to help “lower” the price of the product. When this occurs, more money is available for consumers to spend on popcorn, which will cause the Boy Scout to increase the price. It’s simply the law of supply and demand at work.

Government programs and subsidies are not the only way to pay for college. Scholarships based off of merit and hard work will be able to make the cost more affordable without contributing to hiked tuition rates.

So while many Americans are and should be concerned about ballooning college tuition costs, remember that more government programs will only exacerbate the problem and raise costs further.