PARENTS OF Mount Holyoke students must have been truly shocked when their daughters brought home the news last week that for the first time since 1968, the elite women’s college in South Hadley would not raise its tuition, room, and board charges next year.
Nobody is going to mistake the college’s tuition - now a mere $41,270 - as affordable. But Mount Holyoke still deserves credit for breaking the cycle of endless rate hikes, and recognizing the central responsibility higher education institutions have for addressing the nation’s ballooning student debt crisis.
The issue of student debt has taken on more urgency recently, with groups like Occupy Wall Street focusing attention on crushing student loan burdens that ensure recent graduates are hobbled financially as they begin their careers. The average 2010 graduate who took out loans to pay for college owed more than $25,000; the overall amount of student loan debt surpassed credit card debt in 2010, and stands at $867 billion.
Much of the popular anger over debt, though, has focused on the banks that service the loans, or on stingy federal support. Those are both legitimate areas of concern. But, as Mount Holyoke’s decision underscores, student debt levels are ultimately a function of the prices that colleges charge.
And there are signs that the conversation is moving toward addressing that. In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama said he would “put colleges and universities on notice’’ that they could no longer keep jacking up tuition rates without risking cuts in their federal assistance. That message seems to be getting through. Several small colleges have instituted rate freezes for the 2012-13 academic year, though none has as high a profile as Mount Holyoke.
Other institutions would do well to follow their lead. In the past, when confronted with popular outrage over tuition hikes, colleges and universities have too often replied with a collective shrug, as if parents and students just had to accept education inflation as a fact of life.
Mount Holyoke’s decision shows that it’s not. Small, private colleges like Mount Holyoke educate only a tiny share of the nation’s undergraduates. But they are trendsetters. It’s a good sign that higher education leaders are feeling the pressure to contain costs - and then acting.