Nobody argues that the cost of going to college, and paying for it, has increased well beyond the rate of inflation the past few decades.
Increasingly, however, there are warning signs that the amount of debt incurred by college students threatens to saddle their ability to buy cars, own homes and otherwise keep their heads above water in the years after graduation.
Scot Ross, executive director of the left-leaning One Wisconsin Institute, was in Eau Claire recently hoping to raise public awareness of the problem and advocate for changes in the law that has turned too many students into seemingly never-ending profit centers for private lenders who benefit from their interest-saddled student customers.
Myriad factors have led to the skyrocketing student debt, up from $200 billion 10 years ago to more than $1 trillion today.
Taxpayer support for public universities is down nationwide as tax dollars are shifted to corrections and other spending. The UW System reports that last year about 18 percent of its budget was covered by taxes, compared with 31 percent in 2003. The result has been tuition - and student debt - rising faster than inflation.
The percentage of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students incurring student loan debt is up from 60 just 10 years ago to 70 percent now.
And those 70 percent are taking on more debt: an average of $23,825 per student compared with $14,386 in 2002, according to UWEC officials.
A decline in tax support for the UW System isn't the whole story, however. According to the Wisconsin Blue Book, the two-year UW System budget for 1989-91 was roughly $3.76 billion. By 2009-11, it had grown 146 percent to about $9.28 billion. Inflation during that same period was 67 percent.
Student growth doesn't account for the difference, growing just 8.4 percent over those 20 years, while the number of UW System employees grew 12.4 percent to more than 33,000. In 1989-91 there were 5.4 students per employee compared with 5.21 in the 2009-11 budget.
Two other factors are driving costs. First, employee health care coverage, which was in the range of $5,000 a year for family coverage in 1990 but is now well above $20,000 in many plans. In a labor-intensive operation such as education, those increases are staggering.
Second, many now-graduated students saddled current and future students with more costs in the form of "differential tuition" and fee increases to pay for special enhancements. Students enrolling at UWEC come this fall will be the first to pick up the full cost of the $1,200 annual Blugold Commitment to pay for enhanced learning opportunities and, not surprisingly, increased financial aid. They'll fork over another $326 a year on top of their other fees to help pay off the debt on the new Davies Center.
In four years, those combined costs will add about $6,100 to the cost of college. It's hard for lawmakers to be overly sympathetic with students voting themselves higher tuition and fees who then complain about higher tuition and fees.
Ross is right that awareness is crucial. The days of going to college to "find yourself" are over for most students, who no longer can come close to covering their college costs with part-time jobs and full-time summer employment.
It also would behoove lawmakers to look into the debt issue and make sure the loan programs aren't plainly setting students up for failure.
Universities also need to be as upfront with students as possible about their professional job prospects and adjust offerings accordingly. That may not be good news for those faculty members training students for jobs that no longer exist.
But the main "awareness" must come from students and their parents, who shouldn't sign any loan agreements without understanding the terms and developing a realistic game plan for how that debt will be repaid.
For those who can afford it, saving for college years in advance can help a lot.