One of the common complaints of people concerned with higher education is that so much of the discussion of college has to do with elite schools. In particular, the “college costs too much” obsession seems to be based mostly on the sticker price of some big schools.

But while sticker price is misleading, the true picture about college costs is not terribly reassuring. What the real problem?

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic writes that:

The price of not attending college — that is, the wage difference between college graduates and high school graduates — has doubled in the last 30 years. That suggests that the fundamental crisis in college is not costs but, well, advertising –better information in the hands of undecided customers. Getting a degree at a good school has never been more important. The challenge is getting that information to families and teenagers who don’t know it, yet.

Poorer families without former college-graduates typically don’t have a good understanding of local colleges; the difference between listed tuition price and net cost; financial aid opportunities; or the admissions process. News stories about college being unaffordable only serve to justify their indifference toward continuing their education past high school.

It’s not cost that’s really the problem, it’s a lack of information! Or, as Thompson put it in a helpful graph he made last year:


Well, maybe. This is interesting, but it’s a little misleading. In truth, the price of college is very much a problem, it’s just not that, U.S. News, price.

The trouble is that that high cost of college isn’t just about the fact that the sticker price for a school like Kenyon is $58,000 a year; it’s that the real net price of a school like Ohio State (which real Ohio students from working class families might want to attend) is $16,896 a year. And that’s really a problem.

As I’ve pointed out before, the reason so many students who graduate from high school don’t start college, and the reason so many who do start college don’t finish is that it really does cost a lot of money to go to college.

It’s true that the real cost of college is less than many high school students believe, but that doesn’t mean it’s really affordable, and it also doesn’t mean that merely providing Americans with more information will get a lot more of them through college with degrees.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer