By Jonathan Dame
USA TODAY College
As student loan debt mounts, students and policymakers alike are trying to figure out who is to blame for the country's $1 trillion problem.
According to a study on Millennials released this week by the Harvard Institute of Politics, many young Americans seem to think colleges and universities are most responsible.
In the poll of 2,089 young adults between 18- and 29-years-old, 42% of respondents blamed colleges and universities for rising student debt, while 30% blamed the federal government.
The remaining vote was split between students (11%), state governments (8%), other (4%) and refused (5%).
"I think a lot of the blame can be placed on the fundamental shift from looking at education as an investment to looking at it as a privilege," says Boston College senior Raven Tillman. "I do place partial blame on colleges, because they did contribute to that shift," she added.
When examined along partisan lines, the results show that Democrats are more likely to blame colleges and universities, while Republicans are more likely to blame the federal government, says Eva Guidarini, student chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project, which led the study.
Guidarini, a Harvard junior, says the results do not surprise her given the way politicians and the media frame the issue.
"The universities are the ones who are sending the bill with the higher price tag, so it's a very easy, very direct route to blame," she says.
Catharine Hill, president of Vassar College, cautions that the story behind ballooning student debt - and, by extension, tuition increases - is complicated.
When asked how she felt about so many young people blaming colleges, Hill said colleges only allocate resources to programs that students and families say they want.
"For a school to make a decision not to invest in certain kinds of programs - small classes, good faculties, extracurricular activities - results in many students deciding, 'well that's not a school I want to go to,'" Hill says.
Instead, Hill points to the defunding of higher education - which has led people to view college more as a private good than a public good - as a key driving factor behind the debt.
Glen Waddell, a professor of economics at the University of Oregon who has conducted research on higher education, says there are undoubtedly multiple factors affecting rising student debt.
On the one hand, Waddell says, state funding for public universities has declined dramatically in recent decades. But on the other hand, perhaps flagship public universities are only raising their operating costs to keep pace with well-endowed private institutions.
"It's difficult to separate the segments of the larger market and lay blame at one of them and not the other," he says.
In the survey, over three times as many respondents blamed the federal government than blamed state governments, even though the latter have a much larger role in funding public higher education.
Nick James, a junior at Clemson University, thinks young adults are correct to blame the federal government because of its role in setting interest rates on federal student loans and, more generally, increasing the national debt, which Millennials will have to pay off.
Income inequality is another possible culprit.
Hill says that while high-income families are demanding more from colleges, many low-income families are struggling to afford the tuition increases that come along with these better services and facilities, even though they might benefit from them.
Sara Fitouri, a second-year law student at the University of Denver, has $150,000 in student loans, mostly from undergrad education.
An activist on student debt issues, Fitouri says the study shows students need to be taught how to think about this issue as a systemic problem.
"I realize we have a long way to go to make sure that students understand their power and understand they way they're being manipulated by the system," she says.
Jonathan Dame is a senior at Boston College.