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How to fix America’s crazy high costs of college


Once upon a time, we were a nation of farmers. Schools were few and far between, for the simple reason that they were largely unnecessary. Then came the Industrial Revolution. Factories mass-produced goods; goods begat services; and services required a modicum of math, literacy and other skills deemed essential to the prosperity of a growing middle class.

It stayed that way for a long time: high school education was the engine of American development. American high schools were the world’s best and most advanced.

But the Industrial Revolution is long over. We now live in the age of the Information Technology Revolution. That age demands a whole new skill set — one that can be taught only in the halls of higher education. It’s a fairy tale to think we can compete any other way in the 21st Century.

There now seems to be bipartisan recognition that we need to encourage more students to attend and graduate from college. Whether you’re worried about a competitiveness gap with Europe and Asia, or you’re concerned about a rising tide of inequality — or both — the argument in favor of more college graduates is clear. The opportunity to be a college graduate remains largely a function of how much money your parents have. Earlier this year, the Pell Institute reported that 77% of children from wealthy families received college degrees by 24 in 2013, up from 40% in 1970. The figure for children from poor families was 9% in 2013, up from 6% in 1970. So much for a land of opportunity — at a time when a college education is more essential than ever.

Greater access to college will address the skills gap that the U.S. faces. In the past, unemployment was inexorably tied to a shortage of jobs. Today, that’s no longer necessarily the case: unemployment and underemployment are too commonly the result of a mismatch between the skills required to fill a job and a workforce lacking those skills, according to a landmark study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. A college education is a key to correcting that mismatch.

So it’s no surprise to find that higher education reform figures prominently in the plans of the presidential candidates of both parties (that is, once you delve beyond the posturing and histrionics of this campaign’s Silly Season.)


All of the candidates’ plans address the problem of college tuition in one form or another. No surprise there either — tuition has been rising faster than the inflation rate for as long as anyone can remember. But dealing with tuition costs is only part of the battle. A truly successful reform plan will need to tackle issues, such as child care, commuter subsidies and balancing studies with work.

Why? Because your typical college student is no longer the 18-year-old freshman from the suburbs, living in the dorm on campus. A majority of college students today are what is known as “non-traditional:” they are older, they have kids, they hold down full-time jobs while pursuing their coursework. More than a quarter of all college students are raising a child, according to a 2014 study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Twenty percent of students work full-time; more than half of those who don’t work full-time still put in 20 or more hours a week, according to a 2011 US Census Report. For these students — and remember again that they now form the majority of all college students — it isn’t enough just to make college cheap or free.

Moreover, millions more people like them don’t even consider college because it doesn’t seem like a realistic option in light of the family and economic burdens they face. If the goal is to make this generation the first in which a college degree is as commonplace as a high school diploma was for their parents, the U.S. needs to consider how to remove the hurdles to college matriculation and completion that stand in their way: what do they do with their kids while they’re at school? How can they ease the burden of a long commute to campus? What incentives will encourage them to stay in school rather than taking on a second (or third) job?

If you were a utility-maximizing economist, you could think of the decision whether to attend and stay in college as a simple equation: C=F-P. C is college attendance; F is the prospect of future earnings from a college degree, and P is the price of college, including all that comes with it beyond tuition — lost work opportunities, child care, and so forth.

But these abstract economics don’t work in the real world. Too many non-traditional students and would-be students can’t pay for the cost of college and all that comes with it in the first place — even if they fully understand that the investment in a college degree will pay off handsomely down the line. So once again, it should come as no surprise that, in national surveys, college students report that balancing school with work and financial burdens are the number 1 and number 2 causes of dropping out or not graduating.

A shout-out is in order, then, to the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Her higher education plan recognizes that reform does not begin and end with tuition breaks. The plan calls for increases in Pell Grants to help cover some of the ancillary costs of college. She also introduced a program specifically geared to a growing population of today’s students—parents. SPARK—Student Parents in America Raising Kids. Modeled on a successful program in Arkansas, SPARK would take federal seed money, supplemented by communities, colleges, and non-profits to increase its reach. She also introduced a plan to increase funding for on-campus child care centers from a mere $15 million per year to $250 million per year.

The numbers are large, but the return on investment is inarguable. A 2014 report by the Federal Reserve Board of San Francisco found that a college degree was worth on average more than $800,000 more in earnings than a high school diploma by the time a graduate reached retirement age.

This is not to say that Clinton’s plan is the solution to America’s higher education affordability problems. But the plan does have the virtue of acknowledging that a realistic proposal for today’s student body must look beyond the single issue of tuition costs.

We can expect candidates from both sides of the aisle to visit many college campuses during the upcoming campaign. That’s as it should be – these campuses are American dream institutions that call to the best our country has to offer.

But let’s hold our next president to a high standard on this issue: let’s ensure s/he understands that America’s competitiveness and viability as the world’s economic and political leader depends on broad preparation for, and participation in, its workforce. Tuition breaks are a great step forward on that road, but only by addressing the full costs of college will we able to set a new standard in which college — not high school — graduation is the new benchmark.

Then, and only then, can we live happily ever after.

Elisabeth A. Mason is co-founder of Single Stop USA, a national nonprofit that is a one-stop shop for anti-poverty resources and services for individuals and families. Mason has worked in the domestic and international anti-poverty, education and philanthropy sectors for 25 years.