The cost of higher education is getting out of control.

While studying at the National University of Ireland, Galway last year, I saw firsthand how drastically different the cost of education is abroad.

While I begrudgingly paid Fairfield tuition for my overseas experience, my three Irish housemates, being citizens, were entitled to the going rate for higher education in Ireland, which is roughly equivalent to the cost of a keg of Guinness.

Then, halfway through the semester, the university announced that they were raising the student fees for the coming semester to something like 1,200 euro, at that time equivalent to about $1,600. “Hey,” I thought, “not bad.”

But the students started a small riot. In their opinion, 1,200 euro per semester was highway robbery. I wanted to vomit.

In the United States, it is becoming close to impossible to finance a higher education without having to beg, borrow or steal.

Recently, Fairfield announced that tuition for the 2006-2007 academic year (not including room and board) is set at $31,450, a 5.3 percent increase from this year. By industry standards, that’s not half bad. Next year Boston College will see a 6.6 percent increase in tuition, while incoming freshman at Villanova will see a 16 percent increase in costs compared to this year’s freshman class.

In 1986, the average cost of a private college education was $9,767. In 2002, it was more than $23,000.

Even public schools saw more than a 200 percent increase in tuition costs during that time. Now I am not a business major, but it seems to me that we are talking about more than the cost of inflation. The Consumer Price Index rose 8 percent last year; so, inflation as a justification for 16 percent increases in tuition doesn’t fly.

Worst of all, the ridiculous cost of a private education does not end with your undergraduate degree. In today’s job market it is increasingly crucial for graduates to pursue masters, law and doctoral degrees to be competitive in their fields.

I was disappointed to learn this week that many of the law schools that I had hoped to attend next year – which will remain unnamed – had set their tuition for the 2006-2007 academic year around $36,000. No, that does not include room and board – it’s just tuition.

Compared to tuition at those same schools last year, that is an eight to 10 percent increase. Their bursars’ offices then kindly informed me that I could expect that sort of increase each year as I worked toward my juris doctorate degree. Thanks guys.

Still undeterred, I went to an online loan calculator to figure out my monthly payments post-law school. According to my calculator, in order to keep my loan payments at less than 10 percent of my annual income, I would only have to make $180,000 a year. No problem, guys. I’ll just go rob a bank.

Sadly, I’m not alone. Dozens of my friends are in the same situation. I know some people who are getting their degrees abroad for a fraction of the cost; one friend will be able to finance his entire medical degree in Europe for the cost of one year of medical school in the U.S.

The United States has a world-class system of higher education. Barring overseas institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics, American colleges and universities are some of the best in the world.

But ultimately, this is inconsequential in a society in which even the deepest of pockets are being tapped out trying to pay for a degree. Indeed, the phrase “working your way through school” is today defunct. I don’t know many college students earning more than $20,000 a year – barring child actors, strippers and drug dealers.

I don’t claim to have the answer to the “tuition question.” No one does. I doubt there are any skeletons in academia’s closets or that there is corruption at the institutional level. We’re just in a domestic educational cost crisis, plain and simple.

So unless you’re a business major making $60,000 a year out of college, the higher education system, government and lending institutions basically tell you to go – well, fill in the blank. God help you if you want to be a lawyer, doctor, nurse practitioner or college professor – you’ll only be able to pay for that if, in the next 10 years, you don’t plan on having a mortgage, a car payment or any children.

But hey, who needs lawyers, doctors, nurse practitioners and college professors anyway?

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