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The Crisis of College Affordability

Welcome to the other crisis spreading quietly across the country: the crisis of college affordability.

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 12:28 PM EDT

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

Just this week, on the front page of my hometown paper was the less-than-shocking news that, in our new economically wounded world, if your parents can pay the staggering tuition demanded by our top private colleges in full, you have a major leg up in the race to the college of your choice. New York Times reporter Kate Zernike quotes Robert A. Sevier, an "enrollment consultant to colleges," saying, "If you are a student of means or ability, or both, there has never been a better year." And as fans of my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers used to say in my childhood, "Wait till next year!"

In the meantime, college and university endowments are plummeting, non-tenured professors and teaching assistants are being dropped, and classes cut back on campuses nationwide. Going to college was, of course, something only a thin slice of the American elite once did. If it turns out that we are indeed in a twenty-first century version of the Great Depression, who knows what a college campus will look like, or who will be walking its paths to class, a decade from now?

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As the latest entry in TomDispatch's ongoing series on the fallout in the U.S. from the global economic meltdown, Andy Kroll, who last wrote on the ways in which new Secretary of Education Arne Duncan militarized Chicago's school system, explores higher education in the financial doldrums. Still a college student himself, in a state that's been clobbered by bad times and the collapse of the American auto industry, Kroll considers an American world in which the door to college could be slammed shut on so many. Tom

Shut Out

How the Cost of Higher Education Is Dividing Our Country
By Andy Kroll

A few months ago, Bobby Stapleton, a 21-year-old student at the University of Michigan, received a phone call from his younger brother. The good news came first: a senior in high school, he, too, had been accepted by the university, the fourth sibling in his family to have the opportunity to make the move to Ann Arbor from rural Hemlock, Michigan.

Then came the bad news: his brother had no intention of telling their parents, because as Bobby put it, "he knew the money just wasn't there anymore, and that it wasn't realistic." The financial crisis had plunged the Stapleton family into severe debt. At this point, paying Michigan's modest (by college standards) $11,000 tuition for another child appeared unlikely. As his younger brother told their younger sister, Bobby recalled, "Things were just going to have to be different for the two of them."

Since that moment, Bobby and his older sisters have tirelessly searched for a way to change that fate. He has sought advice from older relatives who attended the university, met with members of its financial aid office, and explained his brother's situation to officials at the Michigan Education Trust, a statewide tuition payment program; all this in addition to a full class schedule and a dormitory dining-hall job that often keeps him at work until one or two in the morning. Still, Bobby wasn't about to give up. "I can truly say that being part of this university is one of the best things that's ever happened to me." He was, he swore, going to do everything he could to make sure that his brother and sister had that same opportunity.

Engines of Inequality

Welcome to the other crisis spreading quietly across the country: the crisis of college affordability. Talk to enough students and families on a college campus like the University of Michigan, where I'm a student, and you'll hear plenty of stories like Bobby Stapleton's—of families scraping by in increasingly tough times as tuition bills rise, of students working second and third jobs, of newly minted graduates staggering into an ever more jobless world under the weight of tens of thousands of dollars in student-loan debt.

This crisis has been a long time coming, but bad times have brought it into clearer focus. In the past several decades, the cost of higher education has climbed at an astounding pace—faster than the Consumer Price Index, faster even than the cost of medical care. Over the past 30 years, the average cost of college tuition, fees, and room and board has increased nearly 100%, from $7,857 in 1977-1978 to $15,665 in 2007-2008 (in constant 2006-2007 dollars). Median household income, on the other hand, has risen a mere 18% over that same period, from about $42,500 to just over $50,000. College costs, in other words, have gone up at more than five times the rate of incomes.

Simply to ensure that a child attends a four-year public university, a family in the country's lowest-income bracket now has to pay, on average, 55% of total income (up from 39% in 2000); for a middle-income family, the average is 25% (up from 18% in 2000); and for an upper-income family, 9% (up from 7%), according to "Measuring Up 2008: The National Report Card on Higher Education" by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Similar figures hold for four-year private schools: In Missouri and Texas, almost 70% of family income is needed to pay college expenses for a four-year private school, after financial aid is included; in New York and Pennsylvania, it's nearly 90%.

Over the same decades, colleges and universities have stepped up competition for affluent students. As a result, many institutions have actually increased the amount of aid they pay out to higher-income students, and done so at a far faster rate than for lower-income students who obviously need it more.

"Engines of Inequality," a 2006 report by The Education Trust, a national education advocacy and policy organization, found that state flagship universities and a group of other major research universities spent $257 million in 2003 on financial aid for students from families earning more than $100,000 a year. Those same universities spent only $171 million on aid to students from families who made less than $20,000 a year. Similarly, between 1995 and 2003, according to the report, grant aid from the same public universities to students from families making $80,000 or more increased 533%, while grant aid to families making less than $40,000 increased only 120%.

"Indeed, the highest achieving students from high-income families—those who earned top grades, completed the full battery of college prep courses, and took AP courses as well—are nearly four times more likely than low-income students with exactly the same level of academic accomplishment to end up in a highly selective university," the report concluded.

The current financial meltdown, of course, only exacerbates this crisis in college affordability. With the national unemployment rate now at 8.1 percent and climbing—12% in hard-hit Michigan—those still holding onto jobs often face scaled-back hours. Meanwhile, states weigh ever more severe cuts to education funding, universities watch as donations drop, and the largest university endowments record losses in the billions. Officials at Harvard University, with its higher-education-leading endowment valued at $36.9 billion, reported in December that they anticipate losses of 30%, or over $11 billion, this fiscal year.

Here at the University of Michigan, the financial crisis and its educational twin, the crisis of college affordability, are palpable. On a recent Saturday, I shared a couch at the campus union with Rachel Long, a sophomore and first-generation college student from Romeo, Michigan. The description she offered me of her "school" life was typical these days.

Long constantly juggles studying for her environmental studies program and helping her parents pay for her education. She already works spare hours at a local ice cream parlor and is considering teaching at a test prep center as well. Whatever it takes, she told me, to help her mom, a hairdresser, and dad, an electrician, pay for her future. "It weighs on my mind when I'm at work, or studying," she said. "I just see the numbers in my bank account decreasing and tuition prices increasing."

The longer this crisis continues, the more our four-year public and private colleges are likely to be transformed into "gated communities of higher education" (in the phrase of Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity) and engines of inequality. Meanwhile, for those priced out of the four-year college market, the job of education will be left to public community colleges with fast growing student bodies, the least funding, and the fewest class offerings, as well as overcrowded classrooms and faculties stretched to the breaking point.

How did college, once seen as an increasingly democratic path to advancement, become so expensive?

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