Will College Become Unaffordable?
According to a 2009 report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, college may become unaffordable for many Americans if things don’t change drastically. According to the report, college costs rose a whopping 439% between 1982 and 2007—while the average family’s income rose only 147%. The rest is being made up for mostly by adding to individual students’ loan burdens—so students graduate with more debt today than in decades past.
Despite this data, college enrollment has continued to rise—it’s risen by 14% between 1987 and 1997, and by 26% between 1997 and 2007. This is probably because education is becoming less and less optional in our economy. It’s more common for employers to require degrees, even for jobs that did not require degrees in the past. And it’s less and less easy for someone without an education to earn a living. High school dropouts, for example, used to earn an average of $35,087 in 1971. Today, the average high school dropout earns $23,903.
Indeed, the public does see higher education as essential in the workplace. But a majority—62%—also agree that it’s rapidly becoming unaffordable and that many qualified students will soon not be able to afford a degree.
But how sustainable is the rise in college enrollment, paired with the rise in tuition and graduating student debt? The reality is that when our students graduate, many are already financially behind, stuck with loan burdens almost as large as a mortgage but without a home to sell if the burden gets too heavy, and with many years of entry- and mid-level salary ahead of them before they start to earn a comfortable living.
Tax breaks are one way the federal government is trying to lessen the burden. The Hope Credit is available for students and their families to write off college tuition. The Hope Credit is worth up to $2,500 per year, depending on your tuition costs and family gross income. Interest from student loans is deductible, and tuition money can be saved under a tax-deferred savings account.
Critics of this type of aid say it’s mainly geared toward middle-class families who have the capital to lay aside savings in the first place, and pay enough in income taxes to earn a tax credit. The federal government attempted to partially alleviate this problem in 2009/2010, by making the Hope Credit refundable by up to $1,000—meaning families that didn’t earn enough and pay enough income tax to qualify may also earn up to $1,000 despite their earnings.
Across the country, colleges have been hit by reductions in funding from state and federal grants as well as private donations. This has made it necessary for them to raise tuition at a time when people can afford it least—and individual students and families ultimately bear the burden of increased costs. Still, some colleges are also experimenting with ways to reduce their costs, and some believe it will be necessary for college education to change drastically to keep it affordable for all. Some options being considered include distance education and accelerated degree programs. But it’s difficult to say how education will change in the near future, or whether there is enough will to do it while enrollment rates are still rising. If dramatic change does happen, it’s likely that it won’t occur until enrollment rates drop due to costs.
The federal government is offering several initiatives geared toward helping more people afford college. These range from additional funds available through programs such as Pell grants and federal loans to tax breaks for those who qualify. There are also options such as Income-Based Repayment Programs for those who are struggling to repay their student loans after they graduate. Still, this patchwork of aid may not be enough to keep college affordable as tuition continues to rise—and as our job marketplace continues to require advanced degrees from its workforce. Hopefully, a better economic outlook will reduce colleges’ need to raise tuition as much in the future.
The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education
NYTimes: Higher Education May Soon Be Unaffordable for Most Americans
Center for Rural Affairs: College Tuition Becoming Unaffordable
Compact.org: College May Become Unaffordable for Most in US
National Center for Education Statistics: Fast Facts
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