Thanks to proposals from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for tuition- and debt-free higher education, college affordability has become one of the flashpoint issues of this electoral season. But the presidential candidates’ plans focus almost exclusively on ways to subsidize education costs. Rarely do the two parties ever discuss ways to slow or reverse the quickly rising tuition prices and other fees for students entering the higher education system.
There’s an enormous literature exploring the various factors driving the rise of college prices. Over the past couple of decades, the cost of going to college has increased at 2.5 times the rate of inflation, rising from about $9,620 to $21,000 for the average college student over the past 30 years.
What strategies should the next president propose to keep colleges and universities from increasing the costs of attendance? Is this a worthy goal?
Ben Miller is senior director for postsecondary education at American Progress.
The United States will never successfully address rising college prices if the federal government continues to go it alone on higher education funding.
Each year, the U.S. Education Department hands out around $120 billion in grants and loans to students. This financial aid makes it possible for students to seize educational opportunities that would otherwise be out of their grasp. But for colleges — and especially states — this federal aid is a blank check.
Unlike other types of federal funding, such as K-12 education or health care for low-income individuals, states and institutions are not expected to match student financial aid dollars with their own. Nor are they required to ensure this federal financial aid does not displace other state or institutional aid or cover any out-of-pocket tuition prices students face.
Without such requirements, states and institutions do pretty much whatever they want. Too many institutions use their own financial aid as a recruitment tool to bring in wealthy students and improve their prestige. Those dollars could instead be paired with federal aid to better serve less affluent students. Many states cut higher education funding whenever they face a budget hole, depriving some public colleges of so much money that these schools have had to raise tuition mid-year. Illinois shockingly refused to fund an entire system of public colleges for nearly a year, forcing schools to rely entirely on student tuition or spend down their own reserves, leaving some schools teetering on the brink of collapse.
This simply cannot continue. America’s college financing system leaves students paying too much and taking on too much debt, saddles the federal government with an unfair share of college subsidies and does nothing to arrest ever-growing tuition.
There’s a way to keep college prices in check: Make funding higher education a true partnership between students, schools, states and the federal government — with clear expectations for everyone involved.
A collaborative process needs to start with the student. That means answering a crucial question: What is a fair expectation for students and their families to contribute based on their means? We need to make that number dependable; otherwise, families have no hope of ever figuring out how to save enough or pay for college.
After deciding what students should pay, we can then set binding commitments for how the federal government, states, local governments and institutions work together to fill the gap left over after the families’ contributions.
This partnership approach addresses the college price issue in several key ways. For starters, it refuses to let states off the hook. Today, every dollar withdrawn from state higher education funding leads, more or less, directly to a dollar increase in tuition. Baseline requirements for state funding would prevent price jumps just to make up for state cuts.
Furthermore, colleges would be held accountable for their costs. If institutions weren’t allowed to charge students above a set amount and couldn’t get more funding from the state or federal government (beyond a reasonable increases each year for inflation), they would simply have to figure out how to keep within their budget.
A college education is the ticket to the middle class. Making higher education broadly accessible to young people is what drives the success of each state and, of course, our national economic growth. To make those goals a reality, we need to get college prices under control. And that means asking students, schools, states and the federal government to each take a reasonable share of the responsibility.