Attending a four-year public college may soon be out of reach for all but the wealthiest. This is the greatest assault yet to the American dream.
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 , 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?
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.