Student Debt: Ripe for Comedy, but No Laughing Matter

In a recent segment, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver took on the subject of higher education in a hilarious rant on some rather serious topics, such as state disinvestment in public colleges and universities, skyrocketing tuition, and rising student loan debt. Injecting his signature brand of comedy, John Oliver touched on a number of important issues that we also highlighted earlier this year in From State to Student, the CBP report on higher education funding in California.

Oliver noted that in recent years, states have slashed funding for higher education by an average of 23 percent per student, according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report. In response, public higher education institutions have raised tuition significantly. This is definitely true in California, as the state’s support for the California State University (CSU) and the University of California (UC) has deteriorated in recent decades and remains near the lowest point in more than 30 years on a per-student basis, after adjusting for inflation. This is even after accounting for the small state funding increases both CSU and UC have received in the last couple years. At the same time, tuition and fees have risen dramatically as state support has dwindled, remaining near historic highs at both CSU and UC, even after adjusting for inflation.

As Oliver points out, one of the consequences of state cuts for higher education and increased tuition is that students are being forced to take out ever-larger student loans to pay for school. The total amount of student loan debt now exceeds $1 trillion nationally after tripling in the past decade, surpassing all other forms of household debt except home loans. Shining some comedic light on the increasing pervasiveness of student loan debt, Oliver quipped that “it has surpassed Bob Marley’s greatest hits album as the thing seemingly every college student has.” Unfortunately this broader trend has not bypassed California, as a growing share of CSU and UC students are graduating with increasing amounts of student loan debt. This is a strong indicator that public four-year higher education is becoming less affordable and less accessible for many high school graduates in California.

As we discussed in From State to Student, these trends have fundamentally altered how higher education costs are shared between the state, on one hand, and students and their families, on the other. Whereas the state once paid most of the cost of public higher education in California, years of budget cuts and tuition hikes have shifted more of the costs to students and families, especially at CSU and UC. This cost shift potentially puts the state’s economic future at risk, as a well-educated workforce is critical to California’s future prosperity. At current rates, California will not produce enough college graduates to meet the demands of the state’s economy in the years ahead.

In his concluding remarks, Oliver commented that “our leaders have decided that, while [higher] education is incredibly important, it is not important enough to actually pay for.” Stay tuned in the coming months as we issue further analysis and commentary that explore these issues — and what they mean for public policy in California — in greater depth.

— Phaelen Parker