A few facts put the crisis in perspective. In 1980-81, tuition, room and board at public four-year institutions averaged about 12 percent of median family income; for private four-year colleges, the figure was 26 percent of family income (see the nearby table, developed by my colleague Steve Steigleder at the Center for American Progress). That’s a pretty serious affordability crunch three decades ago. By 2009-10, however, a year at public institutions consumed roughly a quarter of median family income, while at private colleges the figure had jumped to nearly 54 percent.
This is, to use the technical term, insane.
Little wonder student debt, at $1 trillion, now tops credit card debt for the first time.
The president boasts of having increased the maximum value of Pell Grants to $5,635 next year, up $905 since 2008.
Sounds good. But according to the Department of Education, the maximum Pell Grant in 1976 covered 72 percent of costs at a typical public four-year college. Today it covers about half that much.
In other words, the outer limits of the president’s ambition is to leave public colleges half as affordable via federal aid as they were under Presidents Nixon and Ford.
If that’s the big picture, what’s the president’s plan? He’d boost campus-based Perkins loans and target the increase to schools taking steps to slow the growth of tuition. Translation: more student debt, administered in ways that may at the margins reward colleges that have had smaller price increases than others.
There’s also a $1 billion “Race to the Top” competition to encourage states to promote college completion and affordability. In a higher-ed system that devours more than $350 billion a year, it’s unclear what impact this billion-dollar carrot will have even in hard-pressed state capitols. Obama also wants to extend tuition tax credits, keep student loan interest rates low and create a “scorecard” on what colleges are delivering in learning and post-degree salaries.
Don’t get me wrong. These are nice little steps. But in light of the facts above, it’s hard to see this package as anything more than tinkering at the edges of tinkering at the edges.
A serious affordability agenda would aim much higher. It would start with honest talk about how zillions in grants and student loans have enabled endless college price increases while bankrolling much “research” of dubious merit, cozy lifestyles for tenured professors and a facilities “arms race” that has little link to teaching and learning.