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High Cost, Low Payoff

College Affordability Increases will price out most Americans, hurt U.S. competitiveness

Hartford Courant Editorial

December 15, 2008

Imagine a country in which higher education is so costly it is out of reach for most of its people. That country, with its undereducated masses and tiny educated elite, would lack a competitive edge in the worldwide marketplace and would be among the mix of also-rans.

That country could be the United States if the net cost of college continues to outpace family income by leaps and bounds. The result could be a diminished standard of living and quality of life that most Americans never thought possible.

A sobering indeed, disturbing report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a nonpartisan organization that promotes access to higher education, says that college tuitions and fees increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007, adjusted for inflation, while median family income rose 147 percent. Net college costs (tuition and room and board minus financial aid) at a four-year public university for a middle-income family as a percentage of median family income went from 18 percent in 1999-2000 to 25 percent in 2007-2008. In the past decade, student borrowing more than doubled.

"If we go on this way for another 25 years, we won't have an affordable system of higher education," says Patrick M. Callan, president of the Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

"When we come out of the recession, we're really going to be in jeopardy, because the educational gap between our workforce and the rest of the world will make it very hard to be competitive. Already, we're one of the few countries where 25- to 34-year-olds are less educated than older workers."

Public and private research universities, liberal arts colleges and community colleges must do all they can to restrain costs without significantly affecting the quality of a system of higher education that remains the best in the world. Public institutions must resist piling on big tuition increases, even in hard times.

Yes, college enrollment continues to rise. But there is only so much cost increase and debt that students and their families, especially those who are low-income, can absorb. The stakes for this country are enormous.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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