Recently, the Senate Finance Committee heard a proposal that would force universities to spend five percent of their endowments on financial-aid and other student-related programs. Penn already spends four percent, so what's one percent going to do to my $110,000?

$110,000 is about how much I expect to be in debt when I (hopefully) graduate this May (full disclosure: two years of the debt is from Villanova). I don't even understand owing $110,000. It just doesn't make sense.

I do understand why I'll be this much in debt: I chose to attend private universities in Pennsylvania instead of taking a scholarship at Rutgers. I traded herpes and an awesome football team for this Ivy League degree and a keen ability to act condescending in any social setting.

A lot of you made this same decision. 88 percent of recent alumni told a New York Times poll that Penn's reputation was "very" important in their decision to enroll here. Like most of you, I am a shallow bastard willing to spend a ton ($110,000!) for the Penn rep. Only, unlike about half of you, I don't have that kind of money to spend on anything.

That's why I have loans. Lots and lots of loans. I will have to pay not just the $110,000 I'm obsessing over, but also the interest on it. That $110,000 might actually cost closer to $200,000. Gotta love those variable, double-digit interest rates! Odds are I'll be well into my thirties before my loans are paid off.

I can think about this in terms of how much money I'll earn after I graduate. It may be a ludicrous figure to Jim the college student, but Jim-the-lawyer or Jim-the-exotic-dancer will be able to wrap his head around it. Especially Jim-the-exotic-dancer. Think about it.

But right now, this number is so large to me that it's unquantifiable in real terms. $110,000 is approximately 220,000 drinks at Blarney on a Thursday or nearly half a million packets of Ramen. Either would be enough alcohol/sodium to kill off the entire undergraduate body. It's absurd to contemplate in familiar terms.

But this wasn't always the case.

In 1977, undergraduate tuition at Penn was $4,080. Include the general fee, books, room and board and Penn cost about $6,800 a year. When we convert that into today's dollars, a Penn education costs $23,260 a year. That's about what I owe this semester, not including my rent.

Penn's Web site lists annual tuition and fees as $35,916 and room and board as $10,208 which adds up to $46,124 per year. We're spending twice as much as our parents would if they were Quakers.

The cost of college has exploded. College tuition costs continue to rise much faster than inflation, rising six percent this past year. That mandatory financial aid from the endowment is sounding better and better.

Currently, Penn spends about four percent of the endowment on financial aid, one percent less than the proposed mandatory five percent. Well, if we take another one percent of our $6.6 billion investment, you get $66 million - a significant addition to the current $90 million financial-aid budget. Divided equally among the estimated 5,575 undergrads receiving some sort of financial aid, one percent more equals about $12,000 more per year in financial aid. Over the course of four years, that's $48,000.

Turns out, that one percent could cut my debt in half.

Penn is a microcosm of a national trend. Tuition costs have gone up, but so has the value of a college education. In 1977, a household headed by a high-school graduate earned about 29 percent less than a college grad's. Today, the figure is closer to 46 percent. College costs more today because it's worth more.

Demand is up and the supply is fairly steady, so the price rises. Simple economics. But we're not talking about Phillies tix here (Playoffs! Woo!). Higher education (including vocational training) simply isn't an option anymore; it's mandatory if you want to succeed in today's economy.

It took the Phils 14 years to make it back to the post-season. It'll take me that long to make it to financial independence. Understandably, the University doesn't want the government to mandate how it spends the endowment. But one percent can mean a lot to kids like me. So if Penn's unwilling to make college truly affordable, then it's time the government did.

Jim Saksa is a College senior from Toms River, N.J. His e-mail address is saksa@dailypennsylvanian.com. You, Sir, are an Idiot appears on Tuesdays.

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