Public scrutiny of college affordability isn't just driven by tuition

Household incomes are decreasing alongside an increase in tuition

While tuition has been increasing at colleges and universities across the country, the rise has coincided with numerous economic factors also keeping college out of reach for many families, Jeffrey Selingo writes for the Washington Post's "Grade Point." 

According to Selingo, the percentage of households with annual incomes more than $100,000 decreased over the past 15 years, while the proportion of households with annual incomes less than $35,000 increased. As a result, the average sticker price for college tuition now accounts for more than 40% of many families' earnings. In comparison, tuition made up less than a quarter of a family's paycheck on average in 2001.

"Even if colleges and universities were able to freeze their tuition prices, the cost of a college degree for most Americans would feel like it's continuing to rise," Selingo says. 

Determining tuition increases in an era of declining public appropriations

The drop in annual income for families also hurts colleges and universities. Jerry Lucido, executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of California, notes that students graduating from high school over the next decade are less financially well-off than those who graduated within the last decade.

Families with children most likely to have children attending college within the middle of the next decade are also facing shrinking incomes. According to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, of the 450 U.S. counties where young children significantly outnumber older children, all but 100 have median incomes below the national average.

Some of the biggest hits to middle-class households have taken place in the Northeast and Midwest, regions with the greatest concentration of colleges and universities. That doesn't bode well for lower-income students, who are most likely to attend college within 50 miles of home. 

Are endowments to blame for rising tuition? Or state governments?

"Unfortunately, too many higher ed leaders remain in denial about the broader economic pressures facing their institutions," Selingo says. But they face a sobering reality: "a student body that is much less affluent and less prepared academically for college than the one that propelled the expansion of higher education during the past two decades" (Selingo, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 3/8). 


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