Tallying the Cost of the Student Debt Narrative

College students in Georgia got good news this past week, as the Board of Regents froze tuition and fees at the state’s public colleges and universities for the second year in a row. The news also helps explain why a popular national narrative about college costs and student debt is so wrong-headed.

The regents’ decision means in-state tuition and fees for a semester at the state’s most expensive public college, Georgia Tech, will remain $6,426. That’s just under $13,000 for a traditional, two-semester academic year, or about $51,000 for four years. Room, board, textbooks and other expenses are not included.

At the other end of the spectrum, a semester at a state college, such as South Georgia State College, can run as little as $2,000. For a four-year degree, that’s $16,000. Given that these schools are largely intended to serve nearby populations, many of their students wouldn’t need to pay to live on campus.

In either case, that kind of personal investment should pay for itself several times over during a career. But even those numbers don’t quite illustrate what students may actually pay.

That’s because Georgia still has the HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships. HOPE may not be what it once was – full tuition and fees, plus a stipend for books – but it’s still one of the best deals going.

For example, a HOPE student at Georgia Tech would be left to pay just under $2,600 per semester for tuition and fees. That’s about $20,000 over four years. Yes, it can be tricky to graduate from a tough school like Tech in four years, and hard to maintain a 3.0 GPA to keep HOPE. But more than 99% of in-state freshmen at Tech have either HOPE or the Zell Miller, which pays 100% of tuition. So almost everyone starts with a chance.

Even if they lose their scholarship, consider that $51,000 for four years of in-state tuition and fees is less than the $60,000 cost for a single year at Boston College – which happens to be tied with Georgia Tech on U.S. News and World Reports’ latest list.

And that national comparison leads us nicely into that national narrative about college costs and student debt.

The woeful tales we hear about college costs and student debt are not really about access to higher education. As we’ve already seen, a student in Georgia already can get a degree for less than $20,000; maintain HOPE the whole way through, and we’re talking about less than $5,000. That’s not even taking into account need-based financial aid, from Pell Grants or other sources.

In any event, either of those low-end cost figures is a far cry from the debt forgiveness of up to $50,000 that the Biden administration is trying to find a way to enact.

You know who racks up that kind of debt? By and large, it’s people who decide not to attend a public college. Or, in many cases, people who borrow large sums to become doctors, lawyers, or other high-income professions.

Look up and down the U.S. News list, and you’ll notice a couple of things. First, even the highest-ranked public universities – places like UCLA, the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia – charge in-state students less than $20,000 per year for tuition and fees. (Out-of-state students can expect to pay more than $50,000 per year, before room and board.)

But the rankings are littered with regional private colleges, some of which I guarantee you’ve never heard of, charging upwards of $30,000, $40,000, even $50,000 per year. (I’ll not share the names, to protect the guilty.)

These may be great schools, and hey, it’s a free country: Students who really want to attend them should be free to go for it. But they should know what they’re signing up for financially, and that they do have other options. Getting a taxpayer bailout someday shouldn’t be one of them.

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