Is College Becoming Unaffordable to Nearly Everyone?


According to a disturbing story in today's New York Times, college costs are rising so fast that higher education may become unaffordable for the vast majority of Americans within 25 years.

The story discusses some of the findings of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education's annual report on the state of higher education called Measuring Up 2008. For instance, not adjusted for inflation (see note below), college tuition and fees have risen a staggering 439% from 1982 to 2007, while median family income rose only 147% (as a comparison, medical costs have risen around 250% over the same time frame). As a result, student borrowing has had to doubled in the last decade.

In addition, the story states, "Last year, the net cost at a four-year public university amounted to 28 percent of the median family income, while a four-year private university cost 76 percent of the median family income." Tuition alone today consumes 11 percent of the family budget whereas if trends continue, by 2036 it would eat up 24 percent of a family's budget.

With the current recession, state universities across the country are increasing tuition 15% to 20%. California is thinking of reducing the number of admission spots to the State's higher education system by 10,000 spots next year to save money.

Another jarring fact is that 25- to 34-year olds in the US are less educated than older American workers. If the current financial crisis lasts for a couple of years, the US may find itself with a lost generation of higher educated young people.

Finally, given the current problems (here, here and here) with attracting students into engineering and science degree programs as it is, this latest news doesn't given one much cause to hope that this issue will turn around anytime soon either.

Couple all these together and the longer term prospects for sustaining let alone increasing US technological competitiveness are not good.

UPDATE: In the original post, I said that the figures were adjusted for inflation. However, a commenter noted that they were not adjusted for inflation. When I did the original post, the article in fact stated that they were (there is now a correction appended to the bottom of the NY Times article today, the 4th of December). Thanks for pointing the correction out.


Risk Factor

IEEE Spectrum's risk analysis blog, featuring daily news, updates and analysis on computing and IT projects, software and systems failures, successes and innovations, security threats, and more.

Robert Charette
Spotsylvania, Va.
Willie D. Jones
New York City