That’s what The Daily, News Corp. and Apple’s daily news outlet for the iPad, calculated a college education could cost members of the class of 2034—children born this year, for the most part—if they attend one of the nation’s priciest schools. But even an average public university will cost $81,000 for four years if tuition hikes continue at current rates—which are increasing much faster than inflation. As tuition continues to go up, and even the president calls for solutions, some are looking at radical possibilities for keeping tuition down—or even eliminating it.
The Daily found that tuition has been increasing even faster at public schools than private—4.5 percent a year for public universities and only 3.5 percent for private. According to Jane Wellman of the Delta Project, which studies the cost of higher education, public schools have been relying on tuition rather than endowments to make up for state education budget cuts..
That last statement shouldn’t be surprising—with the Age of Austerity upon us, cuts have been coming fast and hard to state university budgets. Last year, the University of California system saw a $500 million reduction in the support it gets from Sacramento, a 16.4 percent drop.
With support for public universities dwindling in the ongoing economic slump, the cost of college is falling on the shoulders of families and on the students themselves, who are increasingly forced to mortgage their future on student loans that will follow them for the rest of their lives.
Family incomes certainly haven’t kept up with the rise in college costs—The Daily notes that family incomes, adjusted for inflation have only grown by 1 percent since 1987, and the median family wage is down from 2009. Poverty is at an 18-year high. And while Rick Santorum might be attempting to burnish his working-class credentials telling audiences that President Obama is a “snob” for saying that he wants everyone to go to college, Catherine Rampell at the New York Times notes that college graduates’ incomes are actually going up in comparison to those of high school grads.
A professor that Rampell interviewed, Philip Babcock from the University of California at Santa Barbara, noted that perhaps it’s less that incomes are going up for people with degrees and more that incomes are stagnating or dropping for those without them. Rampell wrote, “Additionally, some public policies that helped support the earnings of lower-skilled workers have become less generous over time. The minimum wage, for example, has not kept pace with inflation.”
The decline of unions, the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs that used to provide a solid middle-class income and benefits, and conservative politicians refusing to maintain the minimum wage against inflation have all contributed to a situation where a college education is seen, despite Santorum’s posturing, as the best way for young people to guarantee a good future. Yet if the price of a college education continues to rise above and beyond what working families can afford, we end up with two results: one, that the children of the already-wealthy get the benefits of advanced degrees without debt (how many families can afford to spend $20,000 a year putting a kid through school without taking out loans?) and two, that big banks and student lenders will continue to reap the rewards, raking in interest as they dish out loans to “the 99%.”
An Alternative Plan?
Last month, President Obama and education secretary Arne Duncan met with a group of college presidents (mostly from public universities) and others, including the Delta Project’s Jane Wellman, to discuss ways of keeping college tuition down and improving graduation rates.