College costs

COLLEGE COSTS…. [The following is a post from Paul Glastris, the Monthly’s editor in chief.]

Some scary numbers out today about the growing unaffordability of college.

Over all, the report found, published college tuition and fees increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007, adjusted for inflation, while median family income rose 147 percent.

The current economic downturn will probably make matters worse. Faced with revenue shortfalls, state legislatures usually cut spending on public colleges and universities; the institutions respond by jacking up tuition bills. The net result is that students and families have had to take on mountains of debt to pay for these incredible price increases. And, like everything in life, the poor are hit hardest:

Among the poorest families — those with incomes in the lowest 20 percent — the net cost of a year at a public university was 55 percent of median income, up from 39 percent in 1999-2000. At community colleges, long seen as a safety net, that cost was 49 percent of the poorest families’ median income last year, up from 40 percent in 1999-2000.

This is a huge problem. And it has elicited two general policy responses. One, at the state level, often led by Republicans, is to try to control costs by penalizing institutions that raise tuition and fees the most. Almost nobody thinks this will work. The other response, typically at the federal level and usually led by Democrats, is to find ways to pump more money into student aid. Obama’s plan to offer a $4000 college tuition tax credit to students who perform 100 hours of community service falls into this category. It’s a fine idea, and will bring some relief to families whose kids take part in the program. But it doesn’t get at the root of the problem either, which is the perpetual growth in the cost of higher education.

The only long-term solution is for colleges and universities to find more cost-effective ways to deliver quality higher education to more people. It’s a huge challenge, one that has barely even been discussed in political circles. But there’s actually a fair amount of on-the-ground innovating going on in various corners of the higher education industry. If you want to get a sense of this work, a glimpse of the future of higher education and, perhaps, the route out of the mess we’re in, read Kevin Carey’s excellent piece Transformation 101 in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly.

Yesterday, we held an event in Washington built around Carey’s piece with our friends over at Education Sector. It was a fascinating discussion with a group of expert practitioners who are revolutionizing the way higher education is delivered. An audio of the event is available here.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.