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Shut Out: How the Cost of Higher Education Is Dividing Our Country

April 3, 2009

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.

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.

“Engines of Inequality,” a 2006 report by The Education Trust, 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 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.

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%.

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.

Shut Out: How the Cost of Higher Education Is Dividing Our Country | CommonDreams.org.

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