Contemplating the Cost of College – Time for a System Adjustment?

In the midst of commencement season, there is good news from the America’s Promise Alliance regarding high school graduation rates in the United States. In 2014, the rate hit a record high of 82.3 percent, with a reduction in the number of schools with low graduation rates. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 69 percent of new high school graduates continue their education at a college or university. Unfortunately, the cost of attending public two-and-four year colleges continues to increase, while state funding for these institutions remains below pre-recession levels.

A May 2016 brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explores how the cuts to higher education funding have resulted in these ever-increasing costs being passed on to students and families. Twenty states have cut funding by 20 percent or more since the recession. In Pennsylvania, per-student funding is 33 percent less than it was during 2007-08, even as tuition has increased.

Nationally, tuition increased nearly 30 percent from 2007-08 to 2014-15, while the median income decreased by 6.5 percent during that same time period.  Tuition alone for an incoming student at my (private 4-year) alma mater increased 348 percent since my own freshman year (total inflation between January of that year January 2016 calculated to be 86 percent).  Not surprisingly, the amount of debt that students graduate from public four-year colleges with has increased by 18 percent since 2007-08. To put this in perspective, the authors point out that in the 6 years prior to the recession the average amount of student debt increased just one percent.

A concern raised in this brief, Funding Down, Tuition Up State Cuts to Higher Education Threaten Quality and Affordability at Public Colleges, is that while tuition and fees have increased, faculty positions have been reduced or replaced by part-time instructors, classes have been cut, services for the student body have been scaled back, and some campuses have closed altogether. Students and families are taking on more debt to meet the increased costs but appear to be getting less.

Analyses and opinions vary on what has led to the jump in the cost of higher education and on any possible remedies. Perhaps it is time to adjust a system that has been in place for too long – before another bubble situation (similar to mortgages).  Perhaps student success outcomes should be tied to funding? There are no easy answers. Yet, although anecdotal, there seems to be a swath of the population that make too much for their academically successful teenager to receive aid, but too little to not require high 5-figure loans to off set the expense of a bachelor’s degree.  Is this the new normal?