The high cost of college: How it happened, what to do about it

Published 7:00 am Saturday, April 2, 2016

When I entered college in 1971, at a private women’s college in Boston, tuition for the year was $1,700, and room and board, $1,100. Although a bit steep for a working class family like mine, it was still doable. I had a scholarship, earnings from a summer job, and a National Student Defense Loan. Today, that same college’s tuition and room and board are $37,280 per year. Not doable for even a middle class family. In 45 years that’s an increase of about 1,300 percent; a 29 percent increase each year.
According to the College Board and the U.S. Dept. of Education, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2015–2016 school year was $32,405 at private colleges, $9,410 for state residents at public colleges, and $23,893 for out-of-state residents attending public universities.
In 1970, according to the federal government’s economic statistics, tuition at public universities averaged about 4 percent of a median family’s income. Now it is approaching 25 percent.
And skyrocketing costs have brought about a national crisis among young adult Americans: the average student loan debt for U.S. college graduates is now at $29,000, an amount that will delay a recent college grad from buying a home or even buying a new car; a debt that will take years to pay off. And if the loans were financed through Sallie Mae, these are debts in which college graduates cannot default, consolidate, or re-negotiate.
So how did this happen? How, in 40 years, did college go from being attainable and affordable to prohibitively expensive and difficult to finance?
There are several reasons how this came about. But the biggest reason is that the federal and state governments have stopped investing in higher education, and the schools had to come up with the shortfall by transferring the cost to the student.
To look at how this happened, one must go back to postwar America of the late 1940s to the early 1970s. America was booming and the middle class was expanding. The GI Bill, which FDR had signed into law in 1944, was an unexpected success, enrolling just under 8 million veterans — 10 times the number of student vets the authors of the bill had expected. And it brought millions of veterans into the middle class with white collar careers in engineering, finance, business, and science, which even further expanded the middle class. America embraced this expansion, and dedicated even more money and investments in higher education. In fact, during most of that time period, combined state and federal funds covered 70 percent of higher education’s costs. The booming postwar economy allowed them to spend unprecedented sums of money to expand higher education.

By Deborah Craig

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