Rising College Costs Imperil the Next Generation's Future

By David S. Broder
Sunday, December 7, 2008

Of all the promises Barack Obama made during his campaign, none received more cheers and applause than his vow to make college more affordable and accessible for America's young people.

This was obviously appealing to youths, many of whom find themselves, as Barack and Michelle Obama once did, burdened with debt when they finish their educations. But equally, it was attractive to parents and grandparents who worry about how the next generations in their families can afford the education that is essential to their well-being.

A report last week from a commission headed by Jim Hunt, the former governor of North Carolina, underlines how important Obama's pledge is -- and how difficult it may be to attain his goals.

Its bottom line: College has become increasingly unaffordable to millions of middle-class and working-class Americans, and the rising barriers to attending are costing the United States in the international competition for a trained workforce.

Here are a couple of the key findings from "Measuring Up 2008: The National Report Card on Higher Education," published by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education:

Between 1982 and 2007, college tuition and fees rose three times as fast as median family income, after adjusting for inflation. In the past decade, there has been a 50 percent increase in the number of undergraduate borrowers and a doubling in the inflation-adjusted total of students' debts.

The affordability barrier to college is eroding America's standing in the world. Among Americans between the ages of 35 and 64, the United States is second only to Canada in the percentage of people holding at least two-year degrees. But among those ages 25 to 34, we lag behind not only Canada but also Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Ireland, Belgium, Norway, France and Denmark. When it comes to college completion rates, we are 15th of 29 rated nations, barely above Mexico and Turkey.

In an interview, Hunt warned that the trend threatens the U.S. economic future. It results in part from the stagnation of wages and family incomes in the past decade and from the severe inflation of college costs -- worse even than the run-up in medical care.

With Obama and a Democratic Congress, it is likely that help for students and their families will be on the way -- to the extent that budget limitations and the need for big economic stimulus packages allow.

But Hunt's message to those now sitting in the governors' chairs, as he did for so long, is that higher ed must become their priority as well.

"We've gone through three stages," he told me. "First, states focused on K-12 and developed a standards-based approach to improving the performance of elementary and secondary schools. Then we turned to early-childhood education and worked on universal kindergarten and pre-K programs. The next focus has to be on the colleges."

With state budgets already under duress because of slumping revenue and rising Medicaid costs, Hunt said he realizes that it will be difficult this year to protect higher education's funding, let alone increase spending.

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