Higher Education in America:
A Losing Battle?
“To enhance their opportunities and realize their educational aspirations, Americans work more hours than in the past, incur greater debt, and devote large portions of their income to paying for college” (1).
To most people who immigrate to America, the nation looks like a beacon of hope and bright futures. Opportunities seem boundless and, as the classically inspirational saying goes, you can do anything you set your mind to. For a country with a literacy rate of 99% you would expect only the best higher education system, right? Most Americans do expect this, but find a very different reality. Tuition at two- and four-year colleges are soaring and more and more families are experiencing great debt due to their college-bound children. Is it fair that in order to gain greater opportunities you gain even greater financial hardships?
A clear path of unwavering increase is evident when looking at the past 20 or so years. In 1980, tuition at public four-year colleges and universities represented 13% of all expenses for families with the lowest income levels; in 2000, tuition represented 25% of all expenses for families in the same economic bracket. While it’s pretty obvious that prices of nearly any commodity have risen since 1980, the problem is that household income has risen very little. From 1992-2001, tuition at public four-year colleges and universities rose faster than family income in 41 states; tuition at public two-year colleges and universities rose faster than family income in 34 states (1). According to statistics from 2005, the average cost of one year of schooling at a private college or university was $21, 235, up $15,000 (or 40%) from 2000. In comparison, the average household income rose 4% between 2000 and 2005; that means that the cost of schooling rose 10x more than that of what people were actually making (2). Put into that perspective, it seems nearly impossible that college could even be an option for most Americans. And yet, enrollment in college is increasing at a rapid pace as well. Especially for low- and middle-income families, college is more important than ever. The highest paying careers in the United States typically require at least four years of post-secondary schooling (amounting to a Bachelor’s Degree) and other careers (such as physical therapy) require up to seven years. Patrick Callen said that, “more and more American high school students are going to college, because nowadays, it is nearly impossible to earn a middle-class income without a college degree” (2). Unfortunately, you must pay the financial price-a price that oftentimes becomes a heavy burden.
Students today are graduating with nearly twice as much education-related debt as graduates had ten years ago (1). And while there is financial aid available, that has shifted with the times as well. In the early 1980s, the typical student aid package would be primarily made of grants (money that doesn’t have to be paid back); in the 1980-1981 school year, 55% of the aid package would be in the form of grants. In the 2004-2005 school year, however, 54% of the typical aid package came from loans (money that has to be paid back).
See figure below (1).
As Dannenberg put it, “Today that ratio has inverted. It’s flipped” (3). The way aid is dispersed has switched as well. In 1981, 91% of state financial aid was determined on the basis of need (or a combination of need and academic merit); in 1999, 78% of state aid used need as aid criteria (2).
“A larger and large percentage of the aid that’s there is not going to the students for whom it might make a difference in whether they go to college or not. It’s going to be used as an enticement in this competition for students that will raise your prestige by getting students with the highest SAT scores and the highest grade points out of high school” (2).
While it’s understandable for high-achieving students to receive aid for post-secondary school, many lower-income students have as much potential for success, but simply don’t have the ability to do so. Students in the lowest-income bracket have to rely more on loans, which therefore increase their overall debt. What all of this means for students in general is that they encounter enormous debt after graduation-leaving them with a degree, a possibly high-paying career, and years of education-related debt to pay off. According to a study conducted by the Public Interest Research Group, nearly 40% of all students who borrow money for financial aid graduate with what is deemed “unmanageable” debt levels; also, more than 8% of their monthly income is used to pay back financial aid (2).
So why is all of this actually happening? According to Zappone, “The heart of the problem is that states must juggle the cost of funding their education system alongside two other major funding obligations: state-funded Medicaid and the state criminal justice system” (3). Colleges and universities incur higher costs for health care for their own employees as well. Between 1985 and 2005, the cost of employee health insurance grew 175%. The costs of utilities have also nearly doubled within the last five or so years and, overall, have increased 27.1% since 2005 alone (3). To compensate for these rises, colleges and universities turn to tuition to create revenue. In fact, because of tuition hikes, public colleges and universities increased their revenues by 41% between 1980-1998-despite the fact that it cost more to educate each student (1). Well, the money has to come from somewhere, and currently it’s coming in large part from staggeringly high tuition rates.
So what are college-bound Americans supposed to do? Students need a college education to gain more career opportunities, colleges need money to operate, and money has to come from somewhere. It seems as though in order to get a good education in the U.S. you must be left with enormous debt and financial hardships. Higher education in America shouldn’t be a losing battle-but as of now, it most certainly is.
1. "Chapter 1: Five National Trends." Dec. 2006. The National Center of Public Policy and Higher Education. 15 Jan. 2007 <http://www.highereducation.org/reports/losing_ground/ar2.shtml>.
2. Farrelly, Maura J. "College Tuition Continues to Rise in U.S." 01 Nov. 2005. 15 Jan. 2007 <http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2005-11/2005-11-01-voa51.cfm>.
3. Zappone, Christian. "Healthcare, Energy Drive Up College Costs." CNN. 09 Aug. 2006. CNNMoney. 17 Jan. 2007 <http://money.cnn.com/2006/08/08/pf/college/cost_college/index.htm?postversion=2006080909>.