Who Can Afford College In America?

The rising cost of higher education is putting a degree out of reach for low-income and middle-class Americans, and it may even be proving too costly for the wealthy elite.
By @katierucke |
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    Many higher education institutions were forced to make dramatic cuts to their programs and exponentially raise tuition in the wake of the 2008 recession. These actions were meant to make up for losses in funding, but they have also made it more difficult for low-income and middle-class Americans to obtain a college degree.

    According to a report released on May 1 by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, those cuts may have been more problematic and detrimental than previously realized. They not only led to “steep” tuition increases, but also to additional spending cuts that the center warns “may diminish the quality of education available to students at a time when a highly educated workforce is more crucial than ever to the nation’s economic future.”

    For education advocates, the main concern about the rising cost of higher education is that as the price of tuition rises, many low-income and middle-class families are finding it more difficult to afford send their kids to college. As a result, many are entering the workforce straight out of high school and giving up entirely on getting a degree or attending technical school, making colleges and universities once again a place where most attendees are members of the nation’s wealthy elite.

    Yet despite declines in enrollment, the price of tuition in schools throughout the United States has remained high — about 71 percent higher than it was a decade ago — putting a college education out of reach for many.

    For example, during the 2013-2014 school year, the College Board estimates that tuition for an in-state public school student was about $22,826, while private school tuition was around $44,750. Neither of those figures include the thousands of dollars students spent on student fees, housing, meals, books and school supplies, transportation and more.

    According to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, although tuition prices haven’t been falling, enrollment at schools across the U.S. is rebounding. Colleges and universities still have thousands of students applying for admittance, which allows the schools to fill every open spot on campus, so many schools have not expressed much concern about how high tuition costs have affected low-income and middle-class families.

    Income vs tutition

    Although the high cost of college has been problematic for many, it should be noted there are still millions of people in the U.S. who are willing to pay these high college tuition prices — something that some education advocates argue makes the affordability issue appear less dire than it is.

    But now that a high school diploma no longer guarantees a job and middle-class lifestyle in the U.S., and the price of tuition has reportedly outpaced the income of even America’s elite, there has been a renewed push to reform policies related to college affordability. Some even say that the country’s economic future depends on this reform.


    Elimination of the middle class

    Though many states have begun to work to restore some of the programs cut after the 2008 recession — boosting per student spending by about 7 percent or $450, on average — funding for schools largely remains well below pre-recession levels. As a result, a higher education remains out of the financial reach of a growing group of impoverished Americans who often work multiple jobs.

    One concern about the lack of access to college is that most of the jobs that support a middle-class lifestyle today require a college education. In the past 30 years, jobs that once provided a middle-class lifestyle — like assembly line or factory work — have disappeared, Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute, told MintPress News.

    Callan says one doesn’t need a Bachelor’s degree to work in a restaurant — at least not yet. But those without some higher education, which includes a technical degree or training, usually work minimum wage jobs that don’t offer benefits, and they are finding it almost impossible to escape poverty. Those that do find themselves in a classroom often opt to prepare to enter industries in which jobs and money are plentiful, such as those related to economics, instead of where their skills and interests may be, like programs in the arts.

    “This is a huge problem” that has existed throughout the past few decades, Callan said, but worsened during the last recession. Since college is seen as the gateway to the middle class, Callan says there is going to be high demand for a higher education for the foreseeable future. This is why he says now is the time to fix the problem of high tuition rates.

    Michael Mitchell, a policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of the center’s recently released education report, agrees with Callan. “The jobs of the future will require college-educated workers,” Mitchell said, encouraging states to help fund higher education institutions in order to help bring the price of tuition down for the masses.

    “High levels of student debt are a major problem, and rapidly rising tuition is scaring some students away from enrolling in college altogether,” Mitchell said. “States can help relieve students of crippling debt and keep college affordable for students and their families by re-investing in public colleges and universities.”


    State involvement

    Though the role of the state government is often overlooked when it comes to tuition prices, it’s estimated that about 53 percent of the revenue that supports the operations of public colleges and universities comes from the state where the school is located. This means that when a state’s financial means of supporting colleges and universities drops, these schools have no choice but to raise tuition prices.

    Since the 2007-2008 school year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the price of tuition at four-year public colleges has increased by almost $2,000, or 28 percent, after adjusting for inflation. In Arizona and some other states, the price of tuition is up more than 80 percent at four-year public schools, and it has risen by over 66 percent at schools in Florida and Georgia.

    In addition to the rise in tuition, schools are also coping with the loss of funding by cutting faculty positions, eliminating course offerings, shuttering campuses, closing computer labs and reducing library services, among other cost-cutting strategies.

    For example, to absorb the lack of funding it was receiving, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has laid off 493 faculty members, cut 16,000 course seats, increased class sizes, reduced the amount of computer labs on campus from seven to three, and closed two distance education centers.

    While the federal government has tried to weaken the financial blow dealt to college students by increasing federal student aid and education-related tax credits, many students who do end up attending school find themselves having a completely different “college experience” than their parents, and in some cases, older siblings.


    Stretched thin

    Talking to MintPress, David C. Pecoraro, a college professor and founder of the Student Caring Project, an organization that works to help students understand their strengths and weaknesses so they can make the most of their college experience, said the college experience today is much different than it was for the previous generation.

    While change can be a good thing, Pecoraro says he has some concerns with some of the changes college students of today are experiencing. For instance, he finds the ratio of full-time to part-time faculty alarming. Although part-time or adjunct faculty are excellent at what they do, he said, “the quality of instruction is simply better when a professor can devote 100 percent of their time to teaching.”

    According to Pecoraro, about 60 percent of the faculty at schools throughout the U.S. are part-time faculty, which he said is also concerning, since he discovered the “disturbing fact” that part-time faculty are not required to keep office hours. And though faculty numbers have been cut and tuition prices are rising, Pecoraro says colleges continue to spend large amounts of money on student services-led events.

    “I can only imagine how the quality of instruction could be improved if funds were not going to excessive social events,” he said.

    He also says many students are burdened with extreme debt — including the 70 percent of students who choose to attend relatively more affordable public colleges and universities instead of private institutions.

    To lessen the amount of debt a student will have after college and to pay for their education expenses, Pecoraro says he and his partner, Dr. Daniel de Roulet, found that many full-time students work long hours — 20 to 30 hours per week. With only 24 hours in a day, many students have reported that they don’t have enough time to sleep and eat.

    “This is a serious problem,” Pecoraro said. “I know a couple who recently completed their undergraduate degrees and [were] married,” their combined debt is $100,000 — an amount the couple told Pecoraro “they will never be able to pay off.”

    Callan also said that many of those who chose to go to college despite the high prices are now finding themselves overwhelmed by the loans they had to take out to pay for their education. He says this likely explains why there is currently more student loan debt than credit card debt in the U.S.

    With paying off one’s student loans and escaping education-related debt seeming like an impossible feat to some, Callan says many young people are trying to limit their debt by choosing schools primarily based on cost considerations, instead of where they can get the best education.

    This is worrisome, Callan says, because going to a school solely based on cost was never what education officials and public policy makers had intended for students to do. Instead, a student was supposed to work as hard as they could and go to a school that best fit their education needs and fell within their financial means with the help of financial aid. The big tuition increases and high unemployment have made for a horribly messy economy that Callan says has really put a limit on who can afford to go to school.

    In addition to choosing less expensive schools, Callan says many young Americans are opting to not attend graduate school because they are struggling to pay off the debt they incurred during their undergraduate years. Some are also choosing to not enter college right after high school, but taking some time to work and save money, instead.


    Restoring education for all

    Though there seems to be bipartisan agreement that tuition costs need to come down so that more Americans can afford a higher education and a chance to increase their earning power, there doesn’t seem to be a concrete idea on how this can best be achieved.

    However, Callan says state officials and the federal government have to get involved in order to fix the college affordability crisis. He also mentioned some small solutions that have been proposed, such as temporary tuition freezes and not cutting taxes.

    While the federal government can help by offering students financial aid and pressuring colleges and state officials to do more to lower costs, there is no denying that the states have to get involved if low-income and middle-class students are going to be able to enroll in more significant numbers.

    Since classes are still filling up, it’s hard to say whether colleges even want to address the affordability aspect. But as new data indicates that the price of college is on track to become too expensive for even the so-called “1 percent,” it’s likely that a change may come sooner than later — especially because the U.S. could lose its competitive edge in the global market if the majority of Americans can only afford to obtain a high school diploma.

    “To ensure that public colleges and universities are a place where middle class and low-income students can receive a high-quality and affordable education, states need to reject calls for tax cuts,” Mitchell, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said, adding, “Some will need to consider options for new revenues.”

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