The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Friday August 19th

Column: There ain't no such thing as a free lunch

DTH Photo Illustration. The University Development Office provides endowments and funding for various projects on campus.
Buy Photos DTH Photo Illustration. Student debt stands at a total of $1.7 trillion, are increasing tuition costs to blame?

The number of adjunct and student faculty in higher education has exploded. Managerial and administrative ranks have ballooned. University costs have soared well past inflation. And now, student debt stands at a total of $1.7 trillion. 

Crippling levels of student debt have been in the public eye for decades. Recently, the White House and members of Congress floated proposals to forgive amounts varying between $10,000 and $50,000 of federal student loan debt per person as part of COVID-19 relief. 

That’s certainly pleasing news, but the idea of canceling debt never really made much sense to me. 

Economist and Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman popularized the saying, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” I don’t know much about economics, but eliminating that much public debt can’t come without far-reaching consequences that will either impact us or future generations for decades. 

But astronomical levels of student debt and precarious proposals to address it aside, how did this happen in the first place?

A report released earlier this month by the JP Morgan Chase & Co. Institute stated that “any long-term solution to relieving the burden of student debt is incomplete without addressing underlying issues." The report argued that increasing tuition costs is a major component underpinning rising student debt.

I can’t help but think: Are “increasing tuition costs” actually the underlying issue behind these mind-boggling student debt figures? 

Obviously, on paper, skyrocketing tuition costs explain the rise in student debt in pretty simple terms. As the price of tuition increases, and if wage growth stays flat, borrowers will continue to be riddled with ever-increasing sums of debt. 

But why are tuition costs rising faster than inflation? 

Over the last three decades, the average number of faculty and staff per administrator declined by roughly 40 percent in most types of four-year colleges.

Put simply, administrative ranks have swelled.

Capping the rate of administrative growth spanning HR, finance, communications, security, legal functions and so on is a simple idea that will radically decrease tuition costs for everyone involved. 

Obviously, problems affecting broad swaths of the population are complex, with a wide range of factors often involved. However, the conversation between members of the “responsible” ruling class, namely Congress and large financial institutions, in this case, is completely void of any meaningful signal. 

Research displaying how much debt exists may be helpful, but publishing reports concluding that “increasing tuition costs” is the underlying problem doesn’t help anyone. And passing legislation to cancel it in the short-term sounds almost as if the proposed cure is worse than the disease. 

Anthropologist and social activist David Graeber wrote about an unprecedented expansion of professional and managerial workers that accompanied the creation of entirely new industries like financial services, telemarketing, human resources and public relations over the course of the past century. He described how these jobs and their related functions have spiritually and morally damaging attributes. 

Personally, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish my eventual degree apart from a piece of paper that says I’m really good at shuffling papers.   

In 2016, UNC geography professor Altha Cravey was quoted as saying “the expansion of high-paid administrator positions, and the rapid increase of top administrative salaries is having a negative impact on morale on our campus and in the UNC system.” 

With the price tag for a four-year bachelor’s degree set to increase to $98,936 for 2021, I tend to agree.

Debt, public or private, is a crushing burden that constrains individuals’ freedom and jeopardizes the integrity of broader systems. 

If we’re ever going to escape this student debt nightmare, the dialogue between parties with decision-making power needs to begin addressing the actual underlying cause — bureaucracy gone rogue.

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