By Tom Still

MADISON – Real or faked, a “Dear University Alumni Office”
letter on is making the
rounds. It’s from an anonymous college graduate who responds to a fundraising
appeal from his alma mater by complaining he can’t contribute more than $3.
Why? He’s digging out of tuition debt piled up while pursuing a degree that has
yet to land him a job.

Funny in parts, whiny in others, the letter nonetheless says
a lot about the accountability struggles in higher education today.

Americans once believed in commanding numbers – 80 percent
or more – that a college degree was a good investment. Recent public surveys
suggest confidence has plummeted, in part because the average debt for
graduates is growing ($28,102 for Wisconsin college graduates, according to CNN
Money) at a time when the economy is still struggling to produce enough
high-wage jobs.

Public perception in Wisconsin wasn’t helped by disclosures
in 2013 that the university system was building significant reserve funds at a
time when tuition was rising. Since that budget flap, Gov. Scott Walker and
legislative leaders have twice backed a UW System tuition freeze.

In case you think it’s just those nasty Tea Party
Republicans who are clamping down on higher education, President Obama is
pressing for a rating system – run by the federal government – that would
require colleges and universities to report more about tuition increases,
graduation rates, student debt and how well graduates fare in the work force.

No wonder, then, that UW System President Ray Cross would
tell a recent gathering in Madison that another two-year tuition freeze is “not
necessarily a bad thing.”

“I’m not exactly disappointed with the tuition freeze,”
Cross told a luncheon. “I’d like to look at it in the bigger
picture… Part of our strategy has to be to reduce the cost to go to college. I
mean, student debt is enormous, and if we are oblivious to that, shame on us.
That has to be a priority.”

The rise of student debt is one side of that “bigger
picture,” as Cross correctly noted, and another is the popular image that
incurring that debt isn’t worth it.

From 2005 to 2012, average U.S. student loan debt climbed 35
percent, adjusting for inflation, while the median salary for college graduates
fell by 2 percent. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that about 70
percent of a 25-year-old’s debt is consumed by student loans, making it more
difficult for young graduates to engage in post-school economic activities,
such as buying a home.

That raises the question: Is college debt still “good debt”
that pays for itself over time?

Cross and others in higher education make the case that
going to college – physically at a campus or virtually online – still makes
economic sense for many people, especially given the options.

Recent studies confirm that people with college degrees
consistently earn more and are unemployed less often. The Georgetown Public
Policy Institute reported in 2012 that the gulf in earnings between young
adults with a bachelor’s degree and those without is as wide as it has been in
50 years. Another study, “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College,” released
this year by the Pew Research Center, confirmed the gap between college
graduate earnings and those who hold only a high-school diploma “has never been
greater in the modern era.”

In between on the wage scale are people who hold technical
college or two-year associate degrees. Their salaries are closer to the average
for a four-year degree than a high-school diploma only.

Tuition in the University of Wisconsin System is near the
bottom for peer schools, which suggests a higher value per dollar invested for
those who complete their degree work. However, that’s small comfort to
graduates who don’t land the job they dreamed they would find. For most, it comes
down to market economics. Wisconsin-bred students will pay reasonable tuition
rates if they believe the jobs, salaries and careers are there at the end.  Many out-of-state students already view
Wisconsin tuition as a bargain, so they might even pay more (which would
subsidize in-state students) for similar results.

Higher education sowed the seeds of debt discontent over
decades, and is now reaping a bitter political harvest. The best course for
college leaders is to remain publically accountable and transparent while not
being shy in arguing that higher education still pays for itself over time.