Nothing is straining the family budget more today than the cost of a college education.

According to Sallie Mae, student loan debt tops $1 trillion nationally and the price of going to college has risen 440 percent in the last 25 years.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the national average tuition for a four-year private university is nearly $33,000. As the average tuition at public four-year college soared by 18 percent between 2006 and 2011, the median inflation-adjusted household income dropped 7 percent during that time.

The average debt facing college graduates rose five percent to $26,600, with Pennsylvania ranking second highest among the states. Students graduating from Pennsylvania colleges with a bachelor's degree in 2010-11 left campus with $29,959 on average in loans, surpassed only by New Hampshire's $32,440.

A whopping 70 percent of graduates in the Keystone State are carrying debt. The skyrocketing costs for college along with a tight job market are forcing families to reconsider the benefits to see what returns they're actually getting for their money.

Spring Arbor University, a small Christian university in Michigan, is going the extra mile for graduates by offering a kind of money-back guarantee. If the income of a graduate of the school who works at least 30 hours a week fails to meet certain benchmarks, the school guarantees that students and their parents will receive help in repaying loans. The aid will continue until the graduate's income rises enough or the loan is paid off.

William Jacobson, a professor of law at Cornell Law School, said the student debt problem influences life decisions since it produces two classes of people coming out of college: those who have overwhelming student debt and those who do not. The life decisions affect which job to take and if available, whether a couple can afford to raise a family on the salary.

Gov. Tom Corbett's new budget for 2013-14 proposes level funding for higher education at nearly $1.6 billion, including support of student grants. In return for $1.58 billion in funding to higher education, university leaders in turn promised to work to keep tuition increases as low as possible for students.

Some of Corbett's colleagues in other statehouses are taking a more innovative approach. Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced recently that 23 state-run higher education institutions will soon offer the four-year degree programs for $10,000. Similar plans were proposed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Proponents feel that using more web-based instruction can drive down costs as will the greater competition among schools. It can also force schools to be more efficient.

The idea of a $10,000 program deserves more study. For any parent trying to balance the family budget these days, a statement Gov. Scott made while announcing his idea to help students get an affordable education rings true for every average American family. Students shouldn't have to go into major debt in order to get a degree.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com [1]