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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
A Squeeze Play in Higher Education

At the heart of the modern American Dream has been access to affordable higher education. The G.I. Bill, passed in 1944, helped instill this belief by giving returning World War II veterans unprecedented amounts of financial aid for college and spurring one of the most prosperous eras in the past century.

In 1972, the federal government broke new educational ground by creating the non-repayable Pell Grant, awarded solely on the basis of a student's income and the amount of money his or her family could contribute to college costs. The Pell Grant advanced what the G.I. Bill had begun, greatly expanding access to colleges and universities for low-income individuals and families who otherwise couldn't afford it. From the later 1970s on, however, the access promised by the G.I. Bill and the Pell Grant has slowly slipped away.

Published in 2008 before the full force of the economic meltdown had hit, the "Measuring Up 2008" report graded states on the affordability of their colleges and universities based on the percentage of family income needed to pay for college, strategies available to increase affordability, and how much loan debt students take on. The result? It gave failing grades to a whopping 49 of the 50 states. With a "C-," California was the sole exception.

Colleges and universities have also undergone a dramatic shift in the kinds of financial aid they give out. Grants have been largely replaced by student loans issued by governments and private lenders. In the decade between the 1997-1998 and 2007-2008 academic years, student loans more than doubled—from $41 billion to $85 billion—and the number of students taking out those loans soared from 4,100,000 to 6,111,000, according to "Measuring Up 2008."

Between the 1992-1993 and 2003-2004 academic years, student borrowing rose by 89%, from an average of $3,884 to $7,336 per year. Meanwhile, grant aid lagged, increasing only 57% from $3,545 per year to $5,565, while the Pell Grant lost much of its purchasing power: In 1979, it paid for 75% of the cost of attending a four-year public college or university; today, only about 30%.

As with the Michigan Alternative Student Loan Program, state governments, facing budget deficits in the hundreds of millions of dollars, have only deepened the affordability crisis by slashing or suspending lending programs. At the same time, hard-pressed public and private colleges are raising tuition costs.

Not surprisingly, hardest hit by the crisis are those who can least afford college to begin with, low-income families for whom the financial burden of education has increased fastest. According to "Measuring Up 2008," the lower-middle class and lowest income groups have seen the largest increases in percentages of income needed to pay college costs—more than three to four times the increases experienced by higher income groups.

Even as access to college is dwindling, opinion polls indicate that more Americans believe a college education is essential to a successful, productive life, and that those without a degree will be left behind. Recent unemployment figures reflect that. Only 4.1% of those with a bachelor's degree or higher are, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployed at the moment.

An August 2008 poll by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education found that the percentage of Americans who believe that "a college education is necessary for a person to be successful in today's work world" increased from 31% in 2000 to 50% in 2007. More than 60% of those polled believe, however, that "many people who are qualified don't have the opportunity to go to college," and that college expenses are increasing at an equal or faster rate than health care in this country. This is especially true among black and Hispanic parents, the poll found.

Between hopes and grim realities, students and families find themselves caught, as the poll's authors put it, in a higher education "squeeze play."

Leveling the Playing Field

How, then, to make college affordable again? With the education funding in the Obama administration's stimulus package and the proposed fiscal 2010 budget now before Congress, the Obama administration has made addressing the cost of higher education a national issue—at the very moment when it also threatens to become a national scandal. Included in the two pieces of legislation are increases in the maximum value of Pell Grants and tuition tax credits, as well as programs to make aid more available to more colleges, and to create a $2.5 billion program to increase support for access to, and completion of, college (with a needed focus on low-income students).

The crisis of college affordability is too severe, however, for reinvestment at the federal level alone to make the difference. Need-based financial aid programs—for instance, the University of Michigan's community college transfer program, which focuses on increasing access for high achieving, lower-income students at community colleges—are no less crucial. Indeed, as more students enroll in less expensive, open admissions two-year colleges, hoping later to transfer to a four-year college, investing in this educational pipeline will increase affordability and accessibility for lower-income students.

What higher education leaders could also try, says Don Heller, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State University, is more convincingly selling their message for increased education funding to state and federal lawmakers. "We need to try to sell the message that investments in post-secondary education don't just reap private returns for individuals but also social returns, or societal benefits," Heller said. "We need to do more to get that message out about societal returns. We need to reach the key people."

Speaking of reaching key people, when next I ran into Bobby Stapleton at a campus coffee shop, he was far more confident that his younger brother would make it to Ann Arbor. In the previous month, his parents' financial situation had improved, making it more likely that they could contribute toward tuition costs, and the state had finally agreed to come up with some financial assistance as well.

So his younger brother might just slip through the "squeeze" and into college. If, however, a serious, comprehensive effort isn't soon launched to address the mounting cost of higher education, Americans might emerge from economic disaster with their college and university system looking unrecognizably different and staggering numbers of potential students shut out of an education—and a dream.

Andy Kroll is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and a soon-to-be graduate of the University of Michigan. His writing has appeared at the Nation.com, Alternet, CNN.com, CBSNews,com, and Truthout, among other places. He welcomes feedback, and can be reached at his website.

Copyright 2009 Andy Kroll

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