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College, receding from reach

One of our most-read stories in recent weeks has been Hollis Phelps’s piece on student loan debt -- the total of which nationwide now surpasses $1 trillion (second only to home mortgage debt), with the average student owing close to $30,000 on graduation. As Hollis notes, a big reason for that is that in real dollars the cost of attending a four-year school has more than tripled in thirty years, while family incomes have stagnated. Commencement is a rite of passage closely associated with this time of year, but for many new college grads and rising freshmen (along with their families) it’s now accompanied by the jolting reminder of just how much is owed or will need to be financed.

During a recent college visit with my son, the voluble and eminently capable tour guide was ultimately asked a general question about financial aid. She prefaced her general response with uncharacteristic bloodlessness: “We are a private, high-priced liberal arts college.” Commend her for being forthright, but the framing—no doubt formulated and tested by the administration—hints at what in a different context might be called multitudes: some people can afford this school, but it may be unaffordable for you; we can help arrange a financial aid package that relies in no small part on loans, but you might be better off applying to a public university.

Of course, paying even for a public, “low-priced” college presents, for many people, a financial burden. A big reason is that public schools are themselves becoming more private in terms of how their operations are funded. According to the State Higher Education Executive Officers’ latest annual report, states are covering less and less of the costs they used to, with students now on average providing almost 50 percent of what’s known as educational revenue—the money that goes to teaching and administration; in some states, students cover as much as 85 percent of those costs. Jordan Weissman at Moneybox:


Government cuts are part of the privatization story, but so are increasing expenses. States tend to cut funding to colleges in the wake of recessions, which forces tuition up. When the economy heals, they often restore some of it. But even if they do, tuition generally doesn’t drop much. Instead, the previous hikes tend to get locked in, as schools accumulate new expenses. But whether you think heartless legislators or feckless administrators are to blame, the end result is the same: Students are paying a growing share of costs, and the public’s share is shrinking.

The report comes on top of new a study showing America’s middle class is no longer the world’s richest, and Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision affirming Michigan’s ban on considerations of race in making decisions on admissions to public universities. A college education has long been held by acclimation as a way to aid entrée into the ranks of the solid middle class, a notion given something more than gauzy symbolic appeal via concrete public and legislative mechanisms for making it at least a viable option for as many people as possible. And yet now that option is daily becoming less viable, even when more employers are making a college degree part of their hiring requirements. Sometimes it’s hard to ignore what looks like intent behind the dismantling of structures built to allow equal access to opportunity, and the disregard for the circumstances of the people who seek simply that access (these usually go hand in hand, of course). Charles P. Pierce is explicit about this in his comments on Tuesday's ruling, and—importantly—references other recent court decisions in making his point:

The decision was written by Anthony Kennedy, who lives in that wonderful world where the law is a pure crystal stream running through green meadows, unsullied by the grit and silt that piles up in the actual lives of actual human beings. … [This decision] is pure majoritarianism -- grotesquely so, if you consider the ongoing shenanigans at the state level regarding ballot access and voter suppression. There will be a real impact on real people -- just as there will be with the gutting of the Voting Rights Act and with the cascade of money that this Court has unleashed on the political system …. 

The blistering fifty-eight page dissent of Justice Sonya Sotomayor has received a lot of attention for both its impassioned tone and its swipe at Chief Justice Roberts’s 2007 quip that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race”: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” she said, “is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.” She also came armed with data, noting that in the time since Michigan voters approved the ban on race-based considerations in 2006, the proportion of black freshmen among those enrolled at the University of Michigan declined from 7 percent to 5 percent, even though the proportion of black college-aged persons in Michigan increased from 16 to 19 percent.” This comports with data from other states, like Florida and California, where similar measures are in place

Yet according to a new Pew poll, Americans overall support affirmative action, by a margin of two-to-one, as a way to increase the number of black and minority students on campus; 83 percent of black Americans support it, as do 55 percent of white Americans. Justice Kennedy wrote in the Court’s plurality opinion that “this case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it.” In other words, it was up to Michigan voters. And it still could be, in Michigan and elsewhere, as some observers hopefully point out, and not just on the race front but maybe on the access-and-affordability front as well. The middle class, poorer than before, more racially diverse, and finding itself less able to attain that which once determined what it is to be middle class—such as a college education—still has numbers. Yet whether in its weakened state it can actually effect the kind of change required to restore and strengthen measures that would put college back within reach of as many Americans as possible is a different question. 

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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I will have two in college in the fall.  I can speak from experience that the price of my state's flagship school is, in real dollars, virtually the same (actually a little more expensive) than what my parents and I paid for my private, Jesuit college education in the late '70's and early '80's.

Dominic, your post points out many opportunities for us to hold our elected officials accountable:

  • We must hold our state officials accountable to the promise of an affordable, high-quality education at public colleges and universities
  • We must hold these same officials accountable to the principle that a state's public universities are for residents of the state, rather than prestige factories that educate students from all over the nation and the world (greater attentiveness to this principle might improve the percentage of African American enrollees at Michigan)
  • If the courts will not enforce just affirmative action and equal opportunity admissions, then we must hold these same elected officials accountable to enact these just rules via the legislative process
  • Most importantly of all, we must hold state and local officials accountable for delivering decent primary educations to persons of all incomes and races.  We must make real the notion that a well-educated and well-prepared poor or minority applicant should have nothing to fear from admissions committees


It seems like we should hold Catholic colleges accountable too - why must it cost so much to go to these schools and where is all that 'helping the less fortunate' ethos - sure they have financial aid and scholarships but so do all schools.  The state college I went to in California now charges approximately $3,000 while Georgeown U charges approximately  $46,000.

By Justice Kennedy's reasoning, it should have been up to the voters of Alabama and Louisiana in 1954 to decide how to solve the problem of racial preferences. What a lot of trouble white racistrs could have been saved if he had been on the court then,

I think that some college should be brave enough to move to a model providing students with barebone instruction. Whe money is tight, you tighten your belt and forego expensive vacations and hobbies to focus on the essentials. It makes no sense to me that a student will go into heavy debt to fund a college lifestyle including access to all sorts of expensive extracurricular activities.

If a college had no expensive sports (let the students go kick a soccer ball on the field if they want to get some exercise), no formal orchestra (let the students get together and create their own orchestra themselves if they like music), no chaplains (let the students join the nerest town parish if they want to go to church), no individual  tutoring (let the students form student groups if they want to),  no extra-curricular (let the students form their own clubs if they have some specil interest), no shuttle buses at night (let them organize themselves to walk in groups if it's not safe at night) no fancy trips abroad, but focused on providing the basics only - great instruction in cramped classrooms, good libraries, cheap monacal style dorms, bad food, and basic healthcare - surely it would be much, much cheaper. The students would still be able to get a top level education, and it would simply delay by a few years the country club style that they might have wished for. They would pay for it themselves with their first job, if that was what they wanted to do with their money. I inderstand that this style of study is much more austere, but the alternative of going into debt for a few years of the good life makes no sense.

Let's look at some of the big reasons college costs so much today as contrasted with the immediate  the 40's and '50s.  I know some of the reasons first hand having gone to college with the vets of WWII in the 40-50s.   Here are some of the reasons college cost less per student in those days.


.The university system at that times was not trying to educate half of the older adolescent population, so endowments went further. and the states could afford more per student.  There just weren't as many kids in college proportionately, even though the number did increase a great deal.  


College teachers often made much less, often less than skilled workers such as electrician. (Though the salaries of teachers have gone up, on average they still doesn't match the income of other professionals, e.g., doctors and lawyers, so you can expect continued pressure there, or you'll soon  have to settle for not-very-smart Ph.Ds.  (The grad students are catching on that they've been used badly.)


The cost of healh care for college employees was not as expensive -- partly because serious illness couldn't be helped as much in the 50's as it can now, and old faculty died younger.  Plus there were no student health plans (except for a nurse if you sprained an ankle or something trivial).


The technical support for the sciences was not nearly so expensive, e.g., no computers.


Colleges offered few side-dishes, so to speak, e.g., no junior year abroad, no student involvement in local volunteerism, fancy dorms.  That sort of "overhead" adds up, especially in the private colleges.  (Many of the WW II vets lived in wooden  barracks that had been moved at the end of the war from military installations to college campuses.) 


People, including the vets, were willing to live extremely simply during the course of their college years-- not many cars, tiny vacations if any, few new clothes, though this was not true of many middle class kids,  Students also typically didn't have jobs, but graduated in four years, not five or six.


School Administrators were paid nowhere near what they're paid now.  I can't find the recent article I read on their current salaries, but as I remember, for instance, the president of Harvard makes $4,000,000 -- per YEAR.  And college administrators seem to multiply like rabbits.  Well-to-do rabbits.


In other words, the system was much, much, much simpler and much, much cheaper in many, many ways.


So what are the solutions?  Obviously, higher taxes.  But the middle class is already hurting, so that leaves the 1% -- 10% of the super rich.


Which brings me  to Thomas Picketty, apparently the biggest thing since Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes.  His thesis is that capitalism as it has operated so far impels the rich to get richer  at the expense of the poor.  This implies capitalism as we know it is not self-correcting, as the conservatives have held.  It's not a new thesis (Marx said the same thing a long time ago).  But Picketty has reams of data for something like 30 countries, some of it going back to the 18th century.  His argument is so strong that even many very conservative economists  are taking him very seriously indeed.  Here's a review of his new  "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" from the conservative old Financial Times of London.  (It's up at the top of Amazon's best seller list along wih the likes of  with Stephen King!!)

Capital in the Twenty-First Century’, by Thomas Piketty -


Paul Krugman has gone bonkers over it.  

Notes on Piketty (Wonkish) - -


Want to know how to change the system so all the bright kids will have a chance at college?  Check out Picketty.

Thanks Ann; Picketty is the subject of a piece in an upcoming issue of the magazine.

As to the list of reasons you provide for increased costs, I'd like to add this for consideration. The Jesuit college I attended, after a long period of incremental increases in price, raised its tuition/room-and-board by almost 80 percent between my freshman and senior years, from $7,000 to more than $12,000 (mid-to-late 1980s). In response to student outcry, the administration stated it wanted a "sticker price" that made the school "competitive with Harvard and Yale." Not "competitive" as in cheaper, but "competitive" as in the same league with. To many it was obvious the school had succumbed to you-get-what-you-pay-for thinking; if it charged as much as Harvard or Yale, it would be thought of in the same way as Harvard or Yale by prospective students. Whether Harvard or Yale--or any school now with an advertised price of $50,000 and up--are worth what they charge is a separate issue; in the past few years, my alma mater has appeared more than once in Forbes magazine's list of America's 10 Most Expensive Colleges. 

According to , a general MBA can be obtained for as little as $6k and as high as $120k. If students would do a little research, they would find that it is not nearly as expensive to get a college degree

If a college had no expensive sports (let the students go kick a soccer ball on the field if they want to get some exercise), no formal orchestra (let the students get together and create their own orchestra themselves if they like music), no chaplains (let the students join the nerest town parish if they want to go to church), no individual  tutoring (let the students form student groups if they want to),  no extra-curricular (let the students form their own clubs if they have some specil interest), no shuttle buses at night (let them organize themselves to walk in groups if it's not safe at night) no fancy trips abroad, but focused on providing the basics only - great instruction in cramped classrooms, good libraries, cheap monacal style dorms, bad food, and basic healthcare - surely it would be much, much cheaper. 

Hi, Claire, "cramped classrooms, good libraries, cheap dorms, bad food and basic healthcare" pretty much describes my college experience in the 1980s.  And it was considerably cheaper than it is now.

Regarding athletics: I suspect it helps the public universities, who are dependent on state funds,  to keep a high profile in football, basketball et al.  You may also know that Title IX regulations require comparable treatment between men's and women's athletics.  Whether a big-time athletics program at a university is a profit center or a loss leader, I don't know.

Having visited a number of college campuses the last few years, I note that all of them seem to be in some stage of construction.  My alma mater, Loyola in Chicago, was knocking down buildings and replacing them with other buildings a couple of years ago.  That can't be cheap.  




Dominic --

Yes, sounds like the administrators of your school were of the type who are more interested in building up their own egos than in providing education.  Unfortunately, there are too many "educators" like that in the university system.  Another reason that I think that universities are not what they used to be is the fact that in the old days you didn't get to be president of a university unless you were a scholar/teacher.  Nowadays boards of directors seem more likely to hire businessmen to run the schools -- presidents don't even need Ph.D.'s.  And there's another big change in the system  -- the getting a Ph.D. used to mean that the earner had learned what intensive scholarship really is.

Not that the universities aren't providing some important sorts of training.  They are.  But .  .  .  we need about 20 new threads on the subject.  The situation is terribly complex. 

At Brigham Young University tuition is $4850.

I am told that once of their principles is to not borrow money: they don't start a new building unless they have the money to pay for it. How much of the budget of other universities is spent servicing debts?

APOLOGIES IN ADVANCE: I probably am trying to make too many points in this comment.

The Millennials are beginning to question the value of a college education ... and well they should. They're taking on the burden of mortgage-like debt by age 22 or 23, and often without the guarantee that they'll wind up in a better job than a kid who went to a trade school. My guess is that in another generation or two, there will be fewer people taking four years of their lives to get a degree before getting a job, there will be more targeted "skills" courses, and online learning will have gained more respectability.

College teachers often made much less, often less than skilled workers such as electrician. (Though the salaries of teachers have gone up, on average they still doesn't match the income of other professionals, e.g., doctors and lawyers, so you can expect continued pressure there, or you'll soon  have to settle for not-very-smart Ph.Ds.  (The grad students are catching on that they've been used badly.)

I'm not sure I agree with this entirely. It depends on which college teachers we're talking about. Tenured or full-time profs in a college's most prestigious programs make a good living. However, many colleges rely on high numbers of part-time adjunct instructors (my institution's adjunct ratio is about 90 percent), and they earn much less. This is certainly no incentive to get an advanced degree. For more on the status of adjuncts (or to browse your college of choice, visit the Chronicle of HIgher Ed's Adjunct Project:

FWIW, my kid is going to a community college, and we have urged him to think about earning a two-year degree that would get him into a "starter job." For kids like mine, who are talented and bright, but who do not fit the "academic achiever" mold, this seems like a prudent course that will keep costs down until the kid "finds himself." We have too many friends who sent their kids to prestigious schools only to have them drop out after a semester or two of partying or playing video games with their friends. As one mother e-mailed me, "We might just as well have taken that tuition money, put it in a bucket, and lit it on fire." (Their son is fine now, but it took two years at home busing tables and taking community college courses to redeem his academic record.) National service seems like a good idea for some of these kids.

Right now the "magic bullet" answer for overcoming poverty is to go to college.

But what does it mean when college becomes iunaffordable for so many?

And what will it mean when getting a college degree turns out not to be the magioc door opener to a financially secure middle class status?

The oligarchs that control our country are engaged in a disturbing enterprise to determine who gets into, and who gets discarded by, our economy. They are supportimng charter schools on the premise that some of the poor can be rescued through these schools. They are hard-headedly willing to see other poor pubic school students stay poor.

A society that continues to have a robust, if shrinking, middle class can tolerate a huge concentration of wealth at the top and a permananet state of poverty for a large precentage at the bottom. Brazil is an example. The oligarchs know this. They know thay can prevent any liberal rwam of a more equal socioety in the US from happening. They have achieved the ability to paralyze the federal government. eliminating it as an agent for greater equality.

The "good as Harvard" scam is dead. What matters to even slightly informed applicants is who recruits at your college. Are many, or even some, some the same as the recruiters at Harvard? And if they are, do these employers recruit for the same positions or a lower tier of positions?

Harvard et al are gateways to institutional power. Other colleges aren't really. Their graduates can hustle and get good jobs and some can even make a big living. But access to institutional power is largely limited to the A list of universities and college.

I have advised a number of high school students (in an informal capacigty) to get a certificate (four to six classes) at a community collge, then study whatver they want in college. As a result they get very well paying summer jobs.

I have also advised some liberla arts graduates, expcially those who want to work locally, to skip graduate school and get an inexpennsive certiicate at their local community colleges. A liberal arts degree, plus on of these jobs skills certificates, is a great foundation for good, lifelong salaries.

Of course in many creative fields you have to make yoir own way, and many of the best opportunities are dependnet on location, not just talent. But a design edcation obtained cheaply is a smart move.

What about taking the difference in the cost of a community college two year Assocaiate degree and the tuitiion at an expensive college and investing it for the student? Or half for the student and half for the retirement of the parents?

Almost every community college has an articulation agreement for easy admisssion into strong four-year colleges. Of course the transitioning community college student will miss the endless socializing and beer parties that college "bonding" involves, and will enter that four year college far more mature and therefore not necessarily ready to "bond" in some of the wastrel ways of college students and may be less "popiular." There are costs to eveything.

John McGrath, yes, students who earn the massage therapy certificate at the private "career college" where I teach are in high demand if they pass their tests. They will earn far more than someone in an unskilled job, and, if they enjoy people, it's a good job. 

Investing the difference in tuition between community college and four-year university seems like a very good idea if parents have families in their 20s or 30s and can start doing this when the kids are small. We were dumb and had our son in our 40s. But the upside of this is that our mortgage will be paid next month, and we can use that money to help defray expenses for his education as well as our brand spankin' new Obamacare health care insurance poilicy! 


Woo hoo!  Party at Jean's!

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