Commentary

College Kids Need to Hear the World’s Smallest Violin: Why Subsidy Cuts Are No Reason to Pity Higher-ed Students

This article appeared on Reason.com, December 28, 2005.
Most people have either played the world’s smallest violin—the invisible instrument being bowed when one rubs one’s thumb and forefinger together to play a sad tune for a whiny friend—or been serenaded by it, and know how it can shame listeners in the grips of self-pity. Sadly, though, there is one group of Americans who’ve apparently never heard this most diminutive of instruments: College students, who incessantly cry poverty while living higher and higher on the hog.

The college crowd’s lamentations have been especially loud of late, decrying efforts to eke savings out of federal loan programs to help trim the nation’s massive budget deficit.

A budget reconciliation package recently worked out by House and Senate conferees—and due for a showdown in the Senate as of this writing—has brought the din to a crescendo. The plan, which would save around $13 billion by cutting subsidies to lenders and raising some fees and interest rates paid by students, was labeled by Luke Swarthout, a higher education analyst with the State Public Interest Research Groups, as “an outrage to lower and middle class families that hope to send their children to college.” Similarly, Anya Kamenetz, the author of a regular Village Voice column called “Generation Debt,” recently asserted in an op-ed in The New York Times that cutting student aid would be “robbing from our future.”

So should Americans be overwhelmed with feelings of anguish for our collegians? Hardly. Any proposal to cut aid is invariably smeared by students and their advocates as an outrageous ploy to drop yet more bricks onto students’ already crushing financial burden. What aggrieved students don’t mention is just how cushy their lives really are.

Student aid, for one thing, has been plentiful for years, and has been growing faster than college costs. According to data from the College Board, while over the last decade the average, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil cost of tuition, fees, room, and board grew 32 percent at private four-year institutions, and 42 percent at public four-year schools, aid per full-time equivalent student ballooned 62 percent. Moreover, despite what student advocates try to tell us, the increase in assistance hasn’t come primarily through loans. Inflation-adjusted grant aid per full-time equivalent student, which recipients never have to pay back, grew 51 percent between 1994–95 and 2004–05, from $2,965 to $4,479.

Of course, someone has had to pay for all this unappreciated generosity, and as is so often the case that someone is you, the taxpayer. Between 1994–95 and 2004–05, total inflation-adjusted student aid provided through state and federal grants and subsidized loans ballooned from $37 billion to almost $69 billion.

Those numbers make it a lot harder to stomach the demands for sympathy—and more money—issued by college kids. It becomes even more difficult when one considers what the budding scholars are spending money on.

According to Student Monitor, L.L.C., a company that studies the college student market, almost half of all students own a video game system (68 percent for males), more than a third own digital cameras, and 87 percent own their own personal computer. In light of those figures, it’s little surprise that a 2004 Harris Interactive survey found that college students are “financially empowered, rife with the high-tech trappings of modern campus life and commanding nearly $13,000 of annual per capita spending.”

So students are actually living quite comfortably—and life will only be getting better.

In her New York Times piece, Kamenetz lamented the fact that “today, those lucky enough to graduate from college end up with an average of $17,600 in loans.” That might seem like a lot of debt, but it’s peanuts compared to higher education’s payoff: According to the College Board, the average college graduate is expected to make $1 million more over his lifetime than someone who only graduated from high school. That means after factoring in loan debt, the average bachelor’s degree holder will turn a huge $982,400 profit on college!

So let’s get this straight: College students today get more aid than ever before, have oodles of cash to throw at digital cameras, video game systems, and other luxuries, are looking at a million dollar payoff when all is said and done, but still want everyone’s sympathy and money?

It’s not sympathy college students deserve. It’s a concert from a nationwide orchestra of tiny violins.

Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.