The rising cost of college — even before the recession — threatens to put higher education out of reach for most Americans, according to the biennial report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
Over all, the report found, published college tuition and fees increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007 while median family income rose 147 percent. Student borrowing has more than doubled in the last decade, and students from lower-income families, on average, get smaller grants from the colleges they attend than students from more affluent families.
“If we go on this way for another 25 years, we won’t have an affordable system of higher education,” said Patrick M. Callan, president of the center, a nonpartisan organization that promotes access to higher education.
“When we come out of the recession,” Mr. Callan added, “we’re really going to be in jeopardy, because the educational gap between our work force and the rest of the world will make it very hard to be competitive. Already, we’re one of the few countries where 25- to 34-year-olds are less educated than older workers.”
Although college enrollment has continued to rise in recent years, Mr. Callan said, it is not clear how long that can continue.
“The middle class has been financing it through debt,” he said. “The scenario has been that families that have a history of sending kids to college will do whatever if takes, even if that means a huge amount of debt.”
But low-income students, he said, will be less able to afford college. Already, he said, the strains are clear.
The report, “Measuring Up 2008,” is one of the few to compare net college costs — that is, a year’s tuition, fees, room and board, minus financial aid — against median family income. Those findings are stark. 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.
The share of income required to pay for college, even with financial aid, has been growing especially fast for lower-income families, the report found.
Among the poorest families — those with incomes in the lowest 20 percent — the net cost of a year at a public university was 55 percent of median income, up from 39 percent in 1999-2000. At community colleges, long seen as a safety net, that cost was 49 percent of the poorest families’ median income last year, up from 40 percent in 1999-2000.
The likelihood of large tuition increases next year is especially worrying, Mr. Callan said. “Most governors’ budgets don’t come out until January, but what we’re seeing so far is Florida talking about a 15 percent increase, Washington State talking about a 20 percent increase, and California with a mixture of budget cuts and enrollment cuts,” he said.
In a separate report released this week by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, the public universities acknowledged the looming crisis, but painted a different picture.
That report emphasized that families have many higher-education choices, from community colleges, where tuition and fees averaged about $3,200, to private research universities, where they cost more than $33,000.
“We think public higher education is affordable right now, but we’re concerned that it won’t be, if the changes we’re seeing continue, and family income doesn’t go up,” said David Shulenburger, the group’s vice president for academic affairs and co-author of the report. “The public conversation is very often in terms of a $35,000 price tag, but what you get at major public research university is, for the most part, still affordable at 6,000 bucks a year.”
While tuition has risen at public universities, his report said, that has largely been to make up for declining state appropriations. The report offered its own cost projections, not including room and board.
“Projecting out to 2036, tuition would go from 11 percent of the family budget to 24 percent of the family budget, and that’s pretty huge,” Mr. Shulenburger said. “We only looked at tuition and fees because those are the only things we can control.”
Looking at total costs, as families must, he said, his group shared Mr. Callan’s concerns.
Mr. Shulenburger’s report suggested that public universities explore a variety of approaches to lower costs — distance learning, better use of senior year in high school, perhaps even shortening college from four years.
“There’s an awful lot of experimentation going on right now, and that needs to go on,” he said. “If you teach a course by distance with 1,000 students, does that affect learning? Till we know the answer, it’s difficult to control costs in ways that don’t affect quality.”
Mr. Callan, for his part, urged a reversal in states’ approach to higher-education financing.
“When the economy is good, and state universities are somewhat better funded, we raise tuition as little as possible,” he said. “When the economy is bad, we raise tuition and sock it to families, when people can least afford it. That’s exactly the opposite of what we need.”