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Paying the Price for High Costs of Higher Ed

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By Viany Orozco

A new report, Measuring Up 2008, provides new evidence that the cost of higher education is out of reach for far too many families. The report finds that tuition costs have not only significantly outpaced income growth, but have grown more quickly than health care costs (page 8 of this report). The result is rising debt burdens for students--averaging $21,000 in 2007--and declining access to higher education for students from low-income families. Rising college costs, combined with dwindling financial aid, has reversed the educational progress the United States made in the post-war period. The United States now has the perverse distinction of being one of the few advanced nations where the percentage of our young people (aged 25-34) with an associates degree or higher is lower than the percentage among our older citizens.

Today half of all low and moderate-income high school graduates do not enroll in four-year colleges due to financial barriers. The situation is likely to get worse as state budget deficits will likely result in cuts to higher education funding--so there will be even less financial aid available and even higher tuition bills. At the same time that public resources are contracting, private resources have nearly disappeared. Homeowners have lost more than $5 trillion in real housing wealth in the last two years and it is likely that they will lose another $3 trillion, limiting the ability of parents to take on the incredible financial burdens they have borne for the last three decades.

As I read the Measuring Up report, I was reminded of the story told by In The Heights, a Broadway musical that tells the story of a Puerto Rican family in Washington Heights pursuing the American dream of sending their daughter to college so she can be the first in the family to earn a degree. The daughter gets accepted to Stanford University with a scholarship, but it doesn't quite cover the full costs of college. So, Nina like so many first-generation students works long hours to buy the books she didn't "have time to read." By the end of her first year, her grades dropped too low and she lost her scholarship. She returns home, feeling as she says, like "the biggest disappointment." Her parents feel "useless" until they decide to sell their financially strapped limousine service business to fund her education.

In the Heights highlights two profoundly disturbing realities about America today. First, how problems that derive from failed public policies often get personalized--chalked up to individual failures rather than systemic ones. Second, the musical captures the enormous sacrifice families are making to give their children the chance to fulfill their highest potential and attain some modicum of economic security that comes with a college degree.
The Measuring Up report reminds us that access to college, and success in college, is a public policy issue--not a personal finance problem. For too long, we've shifted the burden of paying for college onto the backs of parents and students. Our young people have paid the price--in the form of dashed aspirations and debilitating student debt burdens. Our nation has paid the price in declining educational attainment.

The new administration promised to strengthen the middle class during their campaign. They also talked about the important role higher education plays in the future of our economy and in keeping the American promise of giving each child the means to reach their highest potential. The connections between these goals must be made explicit by our new leaders, a sustainable and healthy economy, a strong middle class, and a highly skilled and accomplished citizenry cannot be created without a serious investment in higher education starting with the Class of 2012.


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