The True Cost of a College Degree

By Linda Baglia -

As we near the close of another decade, 2019 will be remembered as the year when two separate college admissions scandals broke open. Sadly, the scandals remind us how far we still are from making a college education equitable and affordable for all students. Operation Varsity Blues brought down numerous people of wealth and privilege and revealed the lengths some parents would go to get their children into a prestigious university. Several months later in Illinois, it was uncovered that dozens of families had given up guardianship of their own children to help those students qualify for financial aid independent of their parents. Many of those parents earned too much for their children to receive aid, yet still struggled to pay the cost of college.

The common thread in these two scandals is the strong desire for a college degree. The message that postsecondary education is important for later life success has been received, and people are desperate for access to those benefits. The fact is, the wealthy will always be able to buy a college degree much the same way they would buy a car or a house. What’s concerning is that college opportunity remains out of reach for too many families living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world.

Case in point – with the cost of a degree continuing to climb, middle-class families are finding it harder to pay for a college education. As a result, too many students are leaving college with unmanageable amounts of debt. A report from the Pew Research Center found the number of middle-class students attending a four-year public university actually decreased by 8 percentage points over the last 20 years, with 39% of middle-income students borrowing to pay for their education.

If college costs remain on this unsustainable trajectory, postsecondary institutions will see further enrollment declines and more people questioning if a college degree is still a worthwhile investment. For now, the data show earning a college degree is still a good bet. During the Great Recession, those without a college degree fared much worse than bachelor’s degree holders — a trend that continued during the recovery.

So why aren’t states doing more to solve this affordability issue? In decades past, postsecondary education was well funded by state legislatures, but since the recession, states have shifted an increasing share of that burden on to the backs of students and families. At a time when automation is threatening to wipe out the livelihoods of huge swaths of the middle class, it’s in a state’s best interest to invest heavily in the education and the re-skilling and upskilling of its future workforce. It’s time for states to return to thinking about postsecondary education the way they think about K-12 and early education — as a public good and a necessity for the well-being and prosperity of its citizens.

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