Priced out of college

Access and affordability are under assault in higher education – but why?

Jason Stahl

I have been a graduate student at the University for five years. In this time, I have been a teaching assistant several times and an instructor of my own course once. I’ve enjoyed all of these experiences immensely but, over the course of my teaching, there has been one thing that has frustrated me more than anything else: the student with potential who is unable to realize that potential.

I’m talking about the undergraduate student who shows excitement about the class and the subject being studied but who cannot devote the necessary time to learning because of their particular financial circumstances. These circumstances could encompass any number of factors: the student working full time to pay their way through school, the student working two part-time jobs, the student working a night shift at a part-time job, the student stressed out over significant debt and the student who has to drop out for a semester because they must save money to complete their education.

Well, it turns out that these particular examples I’ve seen in my classes are not isolated at all – they are caused, in large measure, by a nationwide trend of rising college costs. The nonpartisan National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education just released a nationwide study that confirmed college increasingly is becoming unaffordable – particularly for those at the lower end of the income scale.

I’m sure this finding does not surprise the undergraduates reading this, but the numbers are quite striking. For instance, The New York Times article that reported on the study noted that nationwide, “on average, a year at a public four-year university costs 31 percent of a family’s income Ö But that figure hides the enormous difference between families in the bottom 20 percent of income, for which it would be 73 percent of annual income, and those in the top 20 percent, for which it would amount to only 9 percent.”

The numbers for the Minnesota portion of the study are not much better. Here, a public four-year college costs the average family 26 percent of their income.

But once again, this average hides the polarization behind it as those families in the lowest 20 percent pay 59 percent of their income towards the cost of a four-year public school, while those in the top 20 percent pay only 9 percent on their income.

Inadequate financial aid (even though Minnesota is better than most states in this regard) and increasing tuition are largely to blame for these numbers. For instance, in the past 10 years the University has seen an increase in tuition and fees of 111 percent. All of these trends naturally lead to increased borrowing and increased working hours among undergraduates.

This state of higher education has not always existed. At one time – just a generation ago – public higher education was affordable and accessible.

So the question is, Why have costs and accessibility worsened over the past 30 years?

Unfortunately, the study itself and the news articles which reported on it did not focus on the larger reasons why these trends have occurred. Instead, they tend to lay blame on “tough budget cycles” at the state and federal level.

While this is certainly the case, the “larger why” must be traced to the conservative ideological underpinnings of the past 30 years. As with so many other aspects of American life in this period, the reigning consensus that everyone is on his or her own is ultimately at fault. Moreover, with the specific issue of higher education funding and accessibility, the “every person for themself” attitude pays additional dividends for conservatives. I say this because the more individuals and families are solely responsible for their particular economic risks and the more they are disciplined by their student loan debt, the less likely they are to use their education to “rock the boat” and challenge the dominant conservative ideology.

In the end, budget cycles are only a small part of the story. Until this larger conservative ideological consensus changes, tuition will continue to rise and access will continue to erode – especially for those of limited means.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected].