The state of higher education is dire. In the past 25 years, the cost of college has increased by 439 percent. The amount students borrow to finance this cost has more than doubled in the past decade. Meanwhile, median family income has grown slowly in the past two decades, leaving college a privilege of the wealthy few — that is, unless you plan to bury yourself in debt. While everyone has someone to blame for these trends (and there is plenty of blame to go around), few people are talking about solutions. Like our national crises in health care and energy, higher education needs a big solution — and fast.
As trivial as it may sound, understanding America’s education crisis starts with playing the blame game. First on most people’s list are state governments. Though state appropriations for public universities typically rise a bit each year, these increases haven’t kept pace with inflation. For example, in 1960, almost 77 percent of the University of Michigan’s general fund came from the state. In 2007, state contributions only made up about 25 percent of the general fund, leaving students, donors and investments to fill in the rest.
But state governments are not alone in their neglect. The federal government has also abandoned its commitment to financial aid. Two decades ago, the federal Pell Grant program, which helps more than six million low-income students afford college, covered roughly half of a student’s tuition if the student received the maximum award. Today, it covers only one-third of a student’s tuition, even after the Congress raised the maximum award from $4,310 to $5,400 last year. And like the students it helps, the Pell Grant program is broke, with billions of dollars in looming budget deficits that have been largely ignored.
And then there are the universities themselves, which can’t just pass the blame elsewhere. Universities have raised tuition year after year with little regard for students. Meanwhile, executive compensation has skyrocketed, endowments have stayed narrowly earmarked and other costs haven’t been contained.
Though the fact that health care costs have risen roughly 250 percent in the past 25 years is considered cause for Washington to switch into crisis mode, the 439 percent increase in higher education costs is not even on most people’s radar.
So where do we go from here?
We start with big ideas. In 1993, then-President Bill Clinton had one of these. He proposed a massive federal loan program that would have cut the federal government’s wasteful subsidies to private student lenders and allowed students to receive manageable interest rates from the federal government. During this year’s Democratic primary, several more ideas emerged. Hillary Clinton proposed prohibiting colleges from raising students’ tuition once they have started as freshmen. John Edwards, in the most dramatic proposal of any candidate, proposed a program that covered all college costs for two million students who worked part-time while attending college full-time.
Ideas like Edwards’s “work to learn” program are the big solutions that will allow higher education to continue to be accessible for everyone in this country. Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress need to take one of these ideas and run with it.