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Host: Scott LaMar

Smart Talk: Why college costs are so high (and shouldn't be)

Written by Scott LaMar, Smart Talk Host/Executive Producer | Dec 1, 2014 3:31 PM
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What to look for on Smart Talk Tuesday, December 2, 2014:

Dr. Robert Iosue has crusaded against the high costs of a college education well before he was president of York College from 1976 to 1991.  Now he is joined by former York College Dean of Administrative Services Dr. Frank Mussano in writing the new book College Tuition: Four Decades of Financial Deception.

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In the book, Iosue and Mussano cite statistics that show tuitions at four-year colleges and universities have increased by more than 1,000% since 1978.  By comparison, they point out that the cost of health care went up 597% over the same time period.

The book blames several factors for the rising cost of college.  Among them are faculty that are teaching in a classroom setting far less than in the past, an increasing number of administrators, and campuses that continue to add more and more buildings.

Iosue and Mussano write that it's a trend that began with the nation's elite colleges and universities and was emulated by smaller, less prestigious institutions.

The book offers tactics for keeping tuitions and costs lower.

Dr. Iosue and Dr. Mussano appear on Tuesday's Smart Talk.

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  • Radio Smart Talk img 2014-12-02 09:48

    Marcus Emails

    I appreciate Smart Talk taking on this issue, but please call out the issue of “tuition discounting” and how private/independent institutions of higher education have had a market incentive to keep raising the published “sticker price” in response to consumers mistakenly associating “price” with “quality.”

    • Dr. Frank Mussano img 2014-12-02 21:46

      Marcus, you raise an excellent point. In fact, Dr. Iosue and I dedicated an entire chapter of our book to the concept of tuition discounting which is the process of offsetting the sticker price with institutional scholarships. Colleges have escalated their costs so far beyond reach that they feel compelled to make up the difference with scholarships. They tout their scholarship programs as a means for making college affordable, but the discounting strategy ultimately serves as a clever mechanism for increasing revenue by attracting more students. Colleges have become much like car dealers and airlines that charge different people different prices for the same product, a concept economists call "price discrimination."

      Tuition discounting is little more than a Ponzi scheme that worked for a while during the early years but lost effectiveness as college costs skyrocketed into the stratosphere causing larger numbers of students to require significant aid packages. The situation has been exacerbated by the recent long-term decline in the number of college-bound high school seniors.

      Unfortunately, college and universities are engaging in tuition discounting to manipulate enrollment numbers in the hope of generating an acceptable level of net income, rather than concentrating on containing costs and keeping tuition affordable. Furthermore, as you point out, institutions remain motivated to preserve their high price which consumers erroneously associate with quality.

      • Robert V Iosue img 2014-12-03 10:27

        Marcus received a fairly complete answer from Dr Mussano. I would like to explain why we used the rather harsh word 'Deception' in the title of the book. While the use of the word 'discount' is common and well understood, colleges still peddle 'discounts' as 'scholarships' with the result that parents of average, and even below average, students can feel proud of their kids without making any reference to the deception perpetrated by the college.
        Dr. Iosue

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2014-12-02 09:53

    Laguna Emails

    Pennsylvania has several small (2000 or less students) liberal arts colleges that are tuition dependent. That is, they have limited endowments and rely on student tuition to stay in business. Where do you see these small colleges in 10 years? Can they survive? Thank you.

    • Dr. Frank Mussano img 2014-12-02 23:35


      As the number of graduating high school students continues to decline, family incomes remain stagnant and students and their families become even more price sensitive, small undistinguished colleges with sparse endowments could be in deep trouble. Every year competition for students is becoming more ferocious and those institutions that are not innovative, responsive and well-managed may simply not survive.

      Excessive spending on administrative staffs, radically reduced faculty teaching loads, irrelevant programs and unnecessary facility accouterments must be judiciously eliminated. Colleges also need to provide meaningful learning opportunities with benchmarks for consumers to assess outcomes - return on investment. Those institutions that deliver good value and high return on investment will capture the market.

      In a New York Times article, Clayton M. Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, envisions the future in dour terms, predicting that the "bottom 25 percent of every tier” of colleges will disappear or merge in the next 10 to 15 years.

    • Robert V Iosue img 2014-12-03 10:32

      I would add to Dr Mussano's reply to Luguna that even schools with large endowments will have to make tough decisions. In some cases the endowment is collateral for excessive structures on campus, other portions of endowments are proscribed for definite uses, and lastly, colleges are reluctant to see the current value of their endowment go down. Does it not raise questions about that last reason when one notices that the institutions with the largest endowments are also the most expensive.

  • joseph.vanhulle img 2014-12-02 09:57

    Tuition has risen over the past servant years. And even with benefits from the military like the GI Bill now does not even cover the cost of a degree as it was intended to do for our veterans.

    • Dr. Frank Mussano img 2014-12-02 23:52


      Yes, unfortunately, the outrageous cost increases in higher education have negatively impacted so many segments our our population, including veterans, who earned and deserve an opportunity to pursue a fulfilling life. There are many institutions that offer special support and advantages for veterans as listed in the directory of Military Friendly Schools.

    • Dr. Frank Mussano img 2014-12-02 23:57


      Yes, unfortunately, the outrageous cost increases in higher education have negatively impacted so many segments our our population, including veterans, who earned and deserve an opportunity to pursue a fulfilling life. There are many institutions that offer special support and advantages for veterans as listed in the directory of Military Friendly Schools.

    • Robert V Iosue img 2014-12-03 10:44

      Marcus raises a compelling question that reminds us that the original GI Bill introduced just after WWll provided sufficient funds to complete college and, a little extra for beer money ( there are some advantages to be old enough to have lived through these long ago events). However, Marcus' really confirms that college costs today are the problem, not the amount of money available from the government. As mentioned in our book, college cost have out paced everything!
      Dr. Iosue

  • joseph.vanhulle img 2014-12-02 10:06

    Tuition has risen over the past several years. And even with benefits from the military like the GI Bill, this does not even cover the cost of a four year degree as it was intended to do for our veterans.

  • John in Harrisburg img 2014-12-02 10:10

    Either I misspoke when I called, or the good doctors misunderstood my question. I asked (or at least meant to ask) if professors in the true state university system (Millersburg, Shippensburg, Lock Haven, etc.) taught more or fewer classroom hours vs. professors in the so-called "State-Relateds" (e.g. Penn State) vs. profs in private colleges.

    Dr. Musano, I believe, answered that profs at Penn State taught fewer hours than their counterparts in most private colleges. In fact, I already knew this. I was hoping he might mention that professors in the true state system (Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, a.k.a. PASSHE, e.g. Millersburg, etc.) teach MORE classroom hours, on average, than in the privates or the State-Relateds.

    I do want to thank Dr. Musano for pointing out one more of the abuses Penn State gets away with by masquerading as a state institution.

    Which raises another question: Why does Penn States' private siphon to the public treasury continue to go unquestioned, at a time when the far-more cost-effect PASSHE schools are singled out for increasing government scrutiny and even political attack?

    • jjones img 2014-12-02 10:25

      I sure hope you get an answer to your questions - they're good ones that we all need to hear!

      • Robert V Iosue img 2014-12-03 11:03

        I'll tag long for the sake of added some more information. Penn State has a basic 9 credit teaching load at the main campus. Because they want to treat all professors equality (they probably do not know the difference between equal and equity) they apply the same level of teaching hours to all their two year extensions outlets. While virtually every two year public community college and two year private college assigns 15 hours per semester of teaching, only Penn State offer the fiction that seminal research goes on at its two year branches. Of course, it addressed this fiction by added two more years at many of its branches, but still keeps the teaching load well below other comparable schools.
        We put a special section in our brief book about released or reduced teaching. It is the common practice of reducing the stated teaching load for many professors at just about all colleges, public or private, for the most incidental reasons. So pervasive is the practice that it is our believe that if the college states a 12 credit teaching load, the actual will be in the neighbor of 9 credits. If the stated amount is 9 credits, the actual will be close to 6....and so it goes. Our best guess is 3 credits less than stated. Personally, I have tried to get the powers in Washington to do a teaching audit at a handful of institutions. It almost happened but the administration changed as did its direction.
        Dr Iosue

    • Dr. Frank Mussano img 2014-12-03 09:48


      The PASSHE Agreement states: “For all academic faculty members, the full workload for the academic year shall not exceed twenty-four (24) workload hours (with twelve (12) workload hours as standard for a term).” Taken at face value, this standard workload exceeds that of many private colleges and state-related institutions. Although it is difficult to obtain an overall average figure for the Pennsylvania state-related institutions, this quote from Nate Kreuter's Inside Higher Education article(9/5/12) may suffice:

      "So-called 'state flagship' universities, for example, tend to offer the highest salaries in each discipline, when it comes to public universities. As a general rule, there is an inverse relationship between the number of classes you will have to teach and the salary you will make. Universities that emphasize research the most, and thus require less teaching, offer the highest salaries. Universities that prioritize teaching more, and expect less in terms of research, tend to offer lower salaries. There may be a cynical observation in there about what academic compensation says, literally, about the relative values placed on teaching versus research. But these are the ways of our world, at least for now."

      Regarding your comment about Penn State raiding the public coffers, it may largely result from the behemoth's massive number of loyal PSU alumni infiltrating all levels of state government, businesses and governing organizations. And for the record, my undergraduate degree is from Penn State.

  • jjones img 2014-12-02 10:23

    Very, very interesting and timely discussion - thank you! I fear that what is happening in the higher education system is the same as what happened with the banking system, and when it goes bust, there will be no one taking responsibility, but rather the taxpayer picking up the pieces. We want an educated electorate (though with all this education, only a third of those who could vote did vote this last election), but maybe we should be looking to learning more in elementary and secondary schools than is apparently happening now.

  • Scott LaMar img 2014-12-02 10:25

    A listener writes...
    "He" is a "she". We also work weekends answering emails, grading projects. AACSB professors are required to meet qualifications annually!

    > Your panelist fails to note the additional responsibilities of a full time professor thereby giving a skewed view of this "posh" job. In addition to courses taught, faculty must provide office hours to serve students, serve on multiple committees, conduct research, seek grants and other funding. The end result is a full time job that requires hard work, time, and energy both physical and mental. This faculty person has also completed a great deal of education and industry experience before they are ever considered for a position.

    • Robert V Iosue img 2014-12-03 11:18

      To the unnamed professor who probably does make a full time job out of his or her efforts, I would remind everyone that even as a full time job, it is down to 15 weeks twice a year, and during those semesters, there are ample breaks for holidays along with fall and spring breaks. Secondly, we do mention in our book that there are professors who go the additional mile, but the evidence shows to0 few of those. We even show committee work gone askew. The days when faculty had beneficial committees on dorm life, food service, student dress or student action have been hijacked by the legal profession and government regulations. Even professorial command of courses and course content has been weakened by the small print in government regulations, government funding, and 'outcomes' assessments. Money does control actions.

  • Scott LaMar img 2014-12-02 10:26

    Drew asks...
    “Pennsylvania’s community colleges spend 2/3 of every dollar directly supporting the instruction of their students, and have aggressively trimmed their administrative budgets due to a dramatic cut in state support during the recession. Since we have over 2,700 transfer and articulation agreements w/ 4 year schools, and many partnerships with employers across the state, would you agree that community college, either as a place to start a bachelor’s degree or to receive top quality job training, provides a viable alternative to the traditional system that you feel has gotten out of hand?”

    • Robert V Iosue img 2014-12-03 11:32

      I agree absolutely. Further, I would remind one and all, that the fines classroom teachers are found in our two year colleges. Allow me to amplify on that comment. Both Dr Massano and I have no quarrel with virtually everything that goes on in the classroom. Great teaching goes on in all colleges of every kind. But, to say that a great teacher is at Harvard, or other prestigious high priced institution, we have to acknowledge the professor is teaching excellently prepared students. Would he or she be a great teacher if half the students are older returning students, or not well prepared students? Proably not.

    • Robert V Iosue img 2014-12-03 11:39

      We agree that the two year college has some of the finest teaches even when compared with all the others. We also think that in-class teaching is great at just about all colleges. Two points: Agreat teacher at an expensive prestigious college teaches very well prepared students. Would he or she still be great with a class of not well prepared students, some who are older and on their second time around? Probably not! This is where two year colleges excel. The second point is the one we make over and over.....the professor at the four year school is, generally speaking great in the classroom but is not there often enough. Anything less than 12 hours is not enough. We even give a method of providing released time for those with seminal research in the making.
      Dr Iosue

    • Dr. Frank Mussano img 2014-12-03 22:46


      Yes, we certainly agree that for a great many students, community colleges offer an affordable and viable alternative to inefficient, overpriced four-year schools. In our book, we take the argument a step further by stating that four-year colleges and universities can learn a valuable lesson or two from our nations two-year community colleges.

      Being ranked is of minor or no interest. Having overly elaborate buildings does not really impact educational programs. Reducing classroom teaching is not even a minor consideration – quite the contrary, classroom teaching is the primary focus. Self-service is not an overriding consideration when generating academic decisions,and, as you mentioned, lean administrations are an asset.

      In essence, two-year community colleges have managed to remain true to their laudable mission while most higher-level institutions have not. Sadly, the situation has become debilitating for college graduates who find themselves saddled with enormous debt coupled with reduced earning potential to pay their obligations.

  • Scott LaMar img 2014-12-02 10:28

    A listener comments...
    Four people in my family have college degrees and only one of them make enough to pay them back. Additional family members attended some college and they are still trying to pay back their low balance loans.

    I feel like we as a family were pushed into college by our high school to increase their statistics and we would have been better off with other options like technical schools.

    The statistics about income should be tempered with what time of their life they got their degrees.. or I would like to know not the average income but the mean income for people with college degrees.

    Statistically my family wasted their time at college. We would make more money as truck drivers, HVAC, electricians, medical technicians.. lots of other things.. plumbers.. many other in demand things.

  • Scott LaMar img 2014-12-02 11:34

    Michael says...
    My wife and I are both proud graduates of York College of PA (1986) and were privileged to attend when Dr. Iosue and Dr. Mussano were affiliated with that institution. We received a wonderful education, a B.S.N for her in Nursing and dual B.S. degrees for me in Criminal Justice and Political Science. Our daughter is now a sophomore at York College and we were extremely thankful to find that York College – although vastly different in size from the 1980s – maintains the reputation as a private college that offers a quality education at a fair and reasonable price. The fact that “Iosue and Mussano write that [increasing costs are] a trend that began with the nation's elite colleges and universities and was emulated by smaller, less prestigious institutions” may apply to many schools; however, we can thank them and educators like them for making efforts to provide an excellent post-secondary education at a reasonable price.

    • Robert V Iosue img 2014-12-03 11:50

      Hello Michael,
      Thanks for the comment. Dean Mussano was at York for 40 years, I, for 15 years. We both enjoyed building the reputation of the college by enrolling students like you. We also proved that keeping cost down was production in growing in statue and recognition, along with standards.
      Dr Iosue

    • Dr. Frank Mussano img 2014-12-03 23:06

      Hi Michael,

      Dr. Iosue and I truly feel privileged to have served at York College for an extended period of time during such an exciting period of tremendous growth and development. We were part of a successful, grand experiment in affordable higher education. At the same time, we thoroughly enjoyed establishing wonderful, life-time relationships within the campus community.

      I was fortunate to have served as an advisor to the Student Senate during most of my 40 years at York. My fondest memories are those that involve the remarkable students I had come to know and appreciate on a personal as well as professional level.

  • Scott LaMar img 2014-12-02 14:32

    Joel writes...
    I am a professor at a PASSHE school and I agree with much of what your guests say. I routinely teach 15 hours per week. I am up until 2 am each morning and I work a lot on weekends. I get more and more administrative duties as the number of administrators climbs.

  • Scott LaMar img 2014-12-02 16:43

    A college professor writes...
    Your topic today was very important, but the discussion about how to control tuition debt was derailed by Dr. Iosue's rant on how "little" professors work and how much they are overpaid. As other listeners commented, professors have to undergo a lengthy and expensive education, and we are highly qualified. Many of us have multiple graduate degrees and professional experience in addition to our academic background. We work on evenings, weekends and over holidays, and we are available online all of the time to our students and colleagues.

    Dr. Iosue was president of York College in the 80s and 90s; academia has changed significantly since then with the advent of the internet and with increased competition between institutions of higher learning to attract students (especially with the increase in tuition rates). Expenses on items like the proverbial "climbing wall" and new buildings have inflated university and college debts, which are then transferred to students. For example, see the troubles faced by the Cooper Union (the special "Ivory Tower" on CNN highlighted this very well, a couple of weeks ago). In contrast to the spending on new facilities and additional administrators (with high salaries), the number of professors and the level of our salaries has not risen nearly at the same rate. I don't know how much Dr. Iosue was paid in his position, but college president salaries have been inflated for a long time and they have gotten astronomical. Several university presidents make on order of millions of dollars, and high level administrators make as much if not more than the President of the United States. Of course I can understand that these position are important and have the responsibility for fundraising which is integral to the institution's future. However to save costs as a result of all of this spending, colleges and universities are not replacing tenure lines, but hiring visitors and adjuncts instead, which leads to several problems I won't get into here as your speakers touched on it.

    I agree that high school teachers are over-worked and under-paid, but the solution is not to expect professors to teach more hours, if anything it is the opposite. Students entering colleges and universities these days are arguably less prepared for college-level work than they were 20 years ago. I'm not saying that high school teachers are to blame for this, the system is clearly flawed, but college professors have to spend time catching our students up on remedial writing and analytical skills they should have with a high school degree, so that we can push them further. The question to me is not "is a bachelor's degree worth the money" but rather is a high school degree worth anything anymore? And why not? Maybe fewer people should go to college, and take on these debts, but will they be adequately prepared to enter the work force with a high school degree?

    I was quite offended by Dr. Iosue's remarks, given all of this. He fails to take into account that we now live in a globalized "market" and schools are competing in a completely different way than they did in the 80s-90s. Professors are expected to teach, to do service within the college (including serving on committees and advising students) and to conduct world-class research. Many of us spend our "long holidays" in the field scrambling to get data and analyze it before we are slammed with teaching and administrative duties at the start of the next semester. I love my job and working with young people, but it's very different from the lazy academic life Dr. Iosue seems to believe we are all leading, sitting around thinking about ideas. I agree with him that senior academics should be held more accountable than they are (he mentioned the need for continual "testing", similar to how MDs and other professions have to be re-licensed regularly) however he fails to consider the fact that we undergo rigorous reviews in the run-up to tenure (a six year process, which may be repeated if you change schools). Whether that level of scrutiny into our teaching and research should continue post-tenure is a valid concern. However as someone working hard to get tenure, I was dismayed by his comments, knowing there are listeners out there who don't know what our lives are like, who will agree with him.

    • Robert V Iosue img 2014-12-03 12:03

      Let me compliment the unnamed professor who seriously challenged my comments. I should remind him or her that I never said, as indicated by the writer, that professors are overpaid. On the contrary, I was very clear, and say it many times, that they are not overpaid. The writer is correct that I do claim they are underworked as far as teaching classroom goes. I do wish the writer let us know how many credit hours his or her school requires. We start that 12 is the magic number. Keep in mind that some schools have 9 while others are at the 6 level. We even mention schools the have some profs who do not go into the classroom. While the writer comments that some presidents make a lot of money, they, as with professors are not over paid. Some larger institutions are tough to lead, and their budgets, including endowments are humongous. We also point out that some professors do a lot of work. We also point out that too few of them do.
      Dr Iosue

      • A listener img 2014-12-03 19:42

        Dear Dr. Iosue,

        This is the professor who emailed Scott La Mar, he was kind to post my entire comment!

        I apologize for misconstruing your point about professors being overpaid, I must have mis-heard you but the intent was there, especially as you continually emphasize that we "only work 15 weeks" each semester. What I and other professors are saying on this thread is that you are not including all of the time that we spend preparing and implementing our classes (which as you know takes a lot of work) as well as the work we do in committees and on our research, which involves grants with overheads that go to the college/university, so this effort is certainly considered a requirement of our job. Many of us teach in small colleges with limited support services, so we are responsible for coming up with the curriculum, summarizing a vast amount of information (a particular challenge in the internet age), implementing our courses and marking all of the work ourselves.

        I don't know whether you had TAs in your role, but I have taught at research universities (with TAs) as well as at small liberal arts colleges (without TAs), and I can say from personal experience that both types of teaching require a lot of time outside of the classroom. The number of credits I teach does not matter in terms of the amount of time that I spend on my work. I think you asked for the number - I have a 2/3 load (two courses in the fall, three in the spring, so that's six hours of class in the fall and nine in the spring, in addition to all of the hours I spend online running computer-based simulations for my classes, answering student emails and discussion threads on the teaching websites we use, and in my office hours - both in person and online). My courses have an average of 20 students. Some professors teach courses with 10, others 100, I have done both in my career and there are different challenges on both sides of the scale. I have taught graduate courses worth 0.5 credit that were three hours a week, and undergraduate courses worth 1 credit that met the same amount. Consequently I do not understand why you are concentrating on the number of credit hours as an indication of how much a professor is working. There is way too much variety in all of the schools out there (and in the quality of different professors!).

        As I and others on this thread have commented, we have a lot more administrative responsibility than previous generations, and we are also expected to conduct world class research in a globalized marketplace - we don't have three months "off" in the summer, we do field work and supervise summer research with students (as well as independent studies during the school year - neither of these "count" towards our teaching loads, or credits etc.). You cannot compare a professor's life to a normal job and compare them in terms of "hours" of credits/work. Would I prefer to work 50 weeks a year and do less each week, than to have two 15 week semesters where I am run absolutely ragged? I should note that I have lived that other life, working in the non-profit sector. I chose to go into academia not for the money or the "time off" but because I was motivated to work with young people and I wanted to be recognized as an expert in my field. In order to achieve the latter, I need to conduct research and publish (and this effort is part of the consideration my employer will make in order to grant me tenure).

        There is so much more to teaching than the number of hours we spend in a classroom, as you know. I have many friends in adjunct roles who teach more credits than I do. Do I work less than they do? No. Do they have time for research/publishing?

        And yet the fact remains that teaching salaries have remained fairly stagnant while administrative salaries and the number of administrators on campuses has skyrocketed. In my opinion, the problem you are highlighting about professors and credits is not nearly as important as the fact that universities and colleges are mismanaging their budgets, and spending beyond their means in order to compete with one another for students. I strongly encourage you to watch the documentary Ivory Tower when CNN shows it again, it sounds like many of the points they made resonate with your book.

        Respectfully yours, a (female) tenure-track professor.

  • Scott LaMar img 2014-12-03 08:01

    Tom comments...
    I attended a public university in the early 1970's. My degree cost me $14,000, almost twice my first year's salary and about the same as my family income. Today I earn 8 times that amount.

    What is more important is your major. What will earn you money? Art History? Engineering? Same cost, widely divergent incomes.

    It is all about academic choice, not just cost.

    • Robert V Iosue img 2014-12-03 12:14

      My grandson just graduated with a degree in engineering. He got great offer, and is happy with his choice. What you state has been true for decades. I wanted to be a teacher, so I started (years ago) at one half of what my engineer friend got. Poor communication majors have it really tough. Supply and demand controls the process, along with the rigor of the program.
      Dr Iosue

  • Scott LaMar img 2014-12-03 08:08

    Peggy writes...
    Thank you for your excellent discussion on this important topic. As an adjunct (fortunately, one who does it for enjoyment rather than a living!) I have been distressed to see the move towards both shorter semesters, which your guests addressed, AND online formats.

    Where I adjunct, all classes for non-traditional students (so-called "night school") are now 8 weeks long, but cost the same as the traditional 15 week semester. Many of these classes are totally online while some meet once a week for about 3 hours at a time, with the expectation that the rest of the content will be mastered by the student on his/her own using online resources. Once an online course is developed, the university has virtually no need to supply other services to students, many of whom will never set foot on campus, so it is a financial boon.

    I do not think that students master the material nearly as well in these shortened and online formats, and yet they are incurring great debt in the process, and students will tell you that what they miss is direct contact with the professor!

    • Robert V Iosue img 2014-12-03 12:09

      I agree, and I would guess you are a fine adjunct enjoy it. As dean, VP, and president, I always taught and never missed a class. Even not accepting an invitation to meet the President of the US because the date conflicted with math class I taught.
      Dr Iosue

  • Scott LaMar img 2014-12-04 12:50

    Tamela comments...
    Parents are taking on student loans not students. A student can only take on a $25,000. I need $120,000 / student for a 4 yr. degree at PSU times 3 students in our family. We are taking 2x our mortgage a month to pay for one child and will go indebt approximately 60,000/child plus their $25,000 debt. A total of $85,000/child. We won’t have our mortgage paid off for 27 more years and in just 8 yrs. will have over $180,000 debt for our 3 children. This is more than our mortgage.