College Tuition- How long can we continue to say our system is fair?

There is an article on the NY Times about tuition costs at universities, a few excepts: (registration required)

Another article from the Daily Illini (sorry no online cite) says:

The issues up for debate is at what point can we no longer say that education is accessable to everyone and if education is not available to everyone can our economic system be described as fair?

My thoughts on the first issue is that we are quickly approaching that point but not quite there. Tuition according to the NY Times article have nearly doubled in the last 20 years (check the graph) adjusted for inflation. Combined with the decrease in the real minimum wage you have the situation cited in the second article. However it seems like scholarships, grants and most significantly private loans have made up for a good portion of that difference. If current trends continue with increased tuition and decreased state support it is inevitable that it will come to a point where it is no longer affordable.

I don’t know when exactly it can be said that it is no longer accessable but when students are working full-time in the summer along with significant hours during the school year and coming out with substantial debt its close. If we get to the point where a student can no longer get private loans or attending college would cripple them financially then I would say that college is no longer accessable.

As to the second point if we do get to the point where college is not accessable there will be no semblance of fairness in the economy. In my opinion due to the extreme disparity in funding for K-12 education I don’t think the economic system can be called fair in the first place. Inaccesability to college would simply be the last nail in the coffin to me.


Well, you could subsidize it by offering tax credits, in which case it will become even more expensive. Or, you could put price controls on it, in which case it will become less available. Pick your poison.

OTOH, a college degree is worth a lot more than it used to be, and so it makes sense that it will cost more. Perhaps that explains the increase in debt level caused by obtaining a college degree:

Even with the tuition raises a Stafford loan almost completely covers the cost of a semester at PA state schools. Since those are either zero or low interest loans, if you get grants and a part-time job you can do quite well at college and come out relatively pain free.

$25,000 isn’t much when you think about the alternative: depressed earnings, low demand, and an artificial glass ceiling that basically requires a degree to break through. You’re buying your future. $25,000 total is a small price to pay for a starting salary twice that, compared to a salary less than that with no benefits without a degree.

One of the worst things about these analyses is that they fail to take into account what people have paid, and only report what the universities charge.

Within some loose bound of reason, universities can use price discrimination to raise tuition for the richest students while keeping the poorer ones. They simply raise the tuition by an arbitrary figure, and then increase their tuition grants for “low income” students (who need to prove need) so that the poor pay the same amount as they otherwise would have, while the rich pay more.

I don’t necessarily object to this practice.

Don’t forget the books. Yikes!

And also the admission fees, test costs, and whatever else it takes to put together a packet to send to a university.

I’m pretty sure Princeton has started doing this. Where they used to give loans, they now give grants, so that theoretically, all students leave college debt-free.

(Of course, recipients may still be required to enter a work-study program and spend a few hours a week sitting behind a library desk or dining hall counter.)

University funding disproportionatly benifits the middle class at the expense of the poor. By reducing funding, the system is a lot more “fair” nowadays than it was before. Anybody who can’t put up with $16,000 worth of debt for a university degree probably shouldn’t be getting one in the first place.

Do you have a cite for that? I know that a few decades ago, a much smaller percentage of the population attended college, but AFAIK it paid off quite well for them in giving them access to the professions, business networks, politics, etc. etc. On what evidence could we argue that a college degree today is somehow more financially valuable than one several decades ago, when college was more affordable?

And as for financial aid and so forth, even the Ivy League universities, which are among the best-endowed financially and can afford some of the most generous financial aid programs, budget for at least 50% of all students paying the full cost of tuition out-of-pocket. I think there’s no question that the high cost of college gives an extra advantage to students from wealthy families.

What percentage of new college graduates with, say, $25,000 in debt are actually getting entry-level jobs with a starting salary of $50,000 or thereabouts? Do we really want large percentages of college graduates to be financially debarred from taking lower-paying but important jobs like school teaching and social work and so forth?

Tuition at my university has seen the largest consistent hikes in the country.

Wonderful logic.

Just out of curiosity, who ever said the system was “fair” to begin with?

Well, fair or not, at my college, the highest tuition hikes in decades have gone on the last few years, and each year has seen a record increase in freshman enrollment.

I would like to know where one can get a Bachelors degree for 25,000 dollars though. :wink: Mine will be twice that- of course I don’t have any scholarships, just a few grants. I go to a state university, hardly anything prestigious (though we do supposedly have the best school of Journalism in the US). I have taken out a few extra loans to help with costs of living though, so that could be it.

I gave a cite in my post.

I would never argue that rich kids don’t have an advantage. After all, isn’t one of the key reasons people make money so that their kids can have a better life?

But your argument isn’t really relavent, since the budgetary process could very easily be based on pure experience. And, AFAIK, universities like Harvard make their selection process independent of the aid process. IOW, they pick their students, then offer them whatever aid/loans are needed-- they don’t fill a quota of paying students, then let in the non-paying ones.

College costs are crippling. I think there is great value in the old ideal of working your way through school- it’s too easy to lose site of the value of money when people are throwing huge amounts around for you and you never earned any of it. But thats nearly impossible nowdays. I also don’t think it’s healthy to start out your adult life with 20k in debt (and even the best grant packages leave you with that much.)

What nobody tells you is that student loans arn’t all that different than any other loans. It’s no different than spending it up on your credit card. In fact, it’s worse because bankrupcy won’t help. If I knew what 20k in debt meant, I would have never spent half the money I did. I would have lived in a car and ate beans and throw rocks in the ocean for entertainment. But it’s pretty standard just to check all those boxes on the financial aid form, and everyone tells you that the low interest loans arn’t so bad- that they arn’t really loans, even. But 20k in debt is 20k in debt.

And these degree’s arn’t helping us yet. For all I hear about college graduates, it hasn’t hit the class of 2003 yet. The most gainfully employed of my friends is a waitress. Most of us are working low-wage jobs under the managment of the people that didn’t go to college. I know the “I have a degree” effect is going to kick in sometimes, but it’s not like new grads are shouldering the loan burden with ease.

So yeah, people can get loans. But it kicks their ass afterwards. It’s nowhere near the same as actually being able to work hard and pay for college.

I’m sorry you’re situation is such as it is, but you do need to keep in mind two things:

  1. Your anecdotes do not invalidate the data, which is a national average taken over thousands and thousands of individuals.

  2. It’s not clear at which stage the increased earnings kick in. It might well be after more than just 2 years. But, it is getting increasingly harder to make a good living w/o a college degree unless you start your own business. Having said that, you can do very, very well with your own business, but you generally have to work your freakin’ ass off, at least in the early years.

So you did, thanks. (Stupid of me to miss it.) On the other hand, I don’t think the numbers add up to a justification of the current level of college costs:

A big part of the reason for that increase is that the median real income of high school graduates in the past couple decades has mostly been stagnant or falling. So for college graduates to double their wage advantage over high school graduates doesn’t actually mean that they’re making that much more money than they used to.

They certainly haven’t increased their incomes enough to match the several-hundred-percent increase in college tuition over the same period, nor the similarly disproportionate increase in the debt levels of college graduates.

You mean, because fewer poor people tend to go to college than middle-class people? And so if tuition costs are higher so more middle-class people can’t afford to attend college, that decreases inequality between the poor and the middle class?

Of course, that just makes college even more the exclusive province of the wealthy. So the system isn’t actually “more fair” under those circumstances, it’s just unfair in a different way.

Doesn’t matter. It still makes the value of a college education greater than it was in the past.

I don’t know if the math works out that way or not, but then lots of things apreciate faster than the rate of inflation. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with supply and demand as well. More competition for proportionately fewer spots, as well as shifting social patterns opening up the very top schools to pretty much anyone.

I don’t see anything nefarious about the price increases, so I’m not sure what the solution would be to this “problem”. If someone wants to propose something, let’s hear it. As I said in my first post, the only two “solutions” I could think of would probably make things worse.

Well, a better approach to health care funding would help. Universities have been hit very hard by skyrocketing health insurance costs, being quite labor-intensive organizations (on the academic and administrative side, at least) and unable to reduce the payroll burden by mechanization or offshoring. That’s one big part of the reasons tuition costs have been rocketing upward so far in advance of inflation.

But that “opening up” happened a few decades ago. The top schools have regressed to being more socioeconomically elite, as their costs become less affordable to all but the wealthy.

(As for your earlier remark about “need-blind” admissions policies, by the way, remember that such policies don’t mean that every student admitted will get the level of financial aid they need. It just means that the college will offer you admission plus a particular financial aid package. If you or your parents decide that the aid isn’t enough for your family to afford the costs, you turn down the acceptance and your slot goes to another student. That’s how colleges can have officially “need-blind” admission policies but still count on having high percentages of wealthy students who can afford to pay everything out-of-pocket: they simply offer a (necessarily) limited amount of financial aid, and the students who can’t afford to enroll drop out of the enrollment pool.)

When you think about it, it’s probably time for some radical change in the area of education, especially at the college level. The standard model, where 18-22 yr olds go away for 4 years of intensive schooling, was developed hundreds of years ago when society was structured very differently. For one thing, college education was almost exclusively the province of wealthy, young men. People generally married in their early twenties, and stuck with one career for most of their lives.

It wasn’t really until after WWII that this changed significanlty. If I were starting from scratch, I’d design a system where young adults combined work and education over a much longer period. Most young people are generally ill equiped to make the critical career determining decisions that college demands anyway. Perhaps spreading the cost out over something like 10-12 years would make it more affordable, and the result would be better for the people involved, too.

Have they? I’m not saying I disbelieve you, I’m just not aware that that is true.

I agree, especially since “need” is a very subjective thing. I wonder how globalization plays into this. Think of how many Chinese and Indian students are applying to US schools today vs 30 years ago.