By Christopher A. Capuano
The cost of a college education over the years has only moved in one direction: up. Now, college tuition and student loan debt are higher than ever with approximately 45 million Americans currently carrying $1.56 trillion in student loans. This is especially troubling considering how it affects students’ long-term goals, like purchasing a home and starting a family.
College affordability was a problem before the onset of COVID-19, but the financial impact the pandemic has had on so many students and their families has swiftly accelerated the need for change. While more students are struggling to finance their college education, the pandemic has further highlighted the tremendous advantages of having a college degree and the buffer it has provided for those in the labor force.
Although Americans without a college degree have always had higher unemployment rates, that divide substantially expanded due to COVID-19. According to the Federal Reserve, the gap in unemployment rates between those with and without a college degree grew from 2.2% prior to the pandemic to 8.8% in May, and figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in August, Americans with only a high school diploma were almost twice as likely to be unemployed than college graduates.
At a time when the value of higher education could never be more apparent, the number of students either unable or choosing not to continue on with their post-secondary education has grown substantially. This fall, freshman enrollment at colleges and universities around the country declined 16% from last year.
The pandemic has made this both the most critical and challenging time for schools of higher learning to address the issue of affordability. College finances have been severely strained by the pandemic. We have had to make significant investments in new technologies for remote learning and have substantially increased spending on health and safety measures to address and mitigate the coronavirus on our campuses. We’ve also seen huge reductions in revenues from many events and activities we usually depend on.
Despite the formidable difficulties colleges currently face, it is the right time to make higher education more accessible and affordable. That is why Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) will be reducing its undergraduate tuition by about one-quarter of its current rate for all new students beginning next fall. Being the largest private university in New Jersey, we hope to serve as an example for other schools that are in a position to do so to follow suit.
By reducing tuition rates, we could also help stem N.J.’s brain drain and keep N.J. students in-state after their high school graduation. Forty-three percent of our first-time college students attend school out-of-state, with the high cost of New Jersey colleges being a significant factor in their decision. Once they leave, there’s the possibility they won’t return, robbing New Jersey of a talented pool of native workers.
Reducing the tuition rate is also a matter of transparency. While it’s imperative that we make attaining a college degree more affordable,