Tipping Credulity on Student Aid

Yesterday, USA Today ran a front page article on the arrival of six-figure student debt, highlighting especially the $116,000 in debt accumulated by a Rutgers University master’s student.

Now, the article didn’t say whether the scholar in question was an in-state student or had been a Rutgers undergraduate, but if both were applicable his would be a Guinness-worthy borrowing feat, especially since the article said that Rutgers paid the young man’s tuition for his final year of grad school.

Let’s go to the numbers: In the 2005-06 academic year, the cost of tuition, fees, room and board for an in-state undergraduate at Rutgers was $17,800. If the student had paid that for four years—which he obviously didn’t since he must have graduated before 2005-06—his entire undergraduate education would only have cost $71,200. As a graduate student, if we assume he lived in university housing and had the biggest possible meal plan, he would have paid about $20,000 a year. The grand total for both his undergraduate and graduate education, then, would have come to approximately $111,200—$4,800 less than his total accumulated debt! Oh yeah, and Rutgers paid the young man’s tuition in his final year—about $10,000—so he actually owes $14,800 more than the entire cost of his education. Amazing!

Asserting that students have no option but to go into six-figure hock to attend college is, of course, ridiculous. But, predictably, that hasn’t stopped student advocates and interest groups from celebrating USA Today’s story. Indeed, Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt, even dubbed the article a “tipping point” in the battle to convince America that its students are impoverished and need more taxpayer-funded student aid. Sadly, when it comes to her assessment of the article, Kamenetz might be right.