Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Reprioritizing College Affordability

An article in today’s New York Times paints a dire picture for the affordability of college in the future. As states cut allocations to public colleges and universities, the institutions are making up for it by hiking tuition prices. At this rate, an expert quoted in the article says, tuition could make up 24 percent of the family budget by 2036. The Times points to a study released by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education today which shows that 49 of the states are getting an “F” in college affordability, with only California managing to get a passing grade.

The list of reasons why college has become so unaffordable is long. Many schools are just aren’t getting as much out of their endowments since the stock market has taken a tumble, and therefore schools are seeking more from state budgets. But state budgets are tight, too, so states are allocating less and less. This means the burden falls on the students to make up the rest. While some families can afford to pay the increased cost, the hardest hit are low-income students. The Pell grant just hasn’t been keeping up with the cost of tuition, forcing low-income students to take our more and more loans. While federal loans are fairly safe–they’re guaranteed and come with a fixed interest rate–private student loans are fairly unregulated. What’s left is piles and piles of debt, and students are having a harder time paying them off when they have a hard time finding jobs after graduation.

Kevin Carey recently pointed out in a Washington Monthly article that some schools have been compensating for increasing costs by increasing distance-learning-style classes. But the reality is that there are a lot of good things about college affordability–Pell grants and federal loan programs–but there just hasn’t been enough to go around. And many schools, in a constant vie to increase rankings, are spending money on merit aid, or scholarships that often go to those that don’t necessarily need it. If we really want to make sure that low-income students can go to school, we need to restructure priorities in higher education. Low-income students may be the most expensive to educate, but they also see the greatest economic mobility increases. That means it’s the best return on an investment.

Cross posted at Pushback.

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