Signs point to college educations still being very difficult to afford for many Americans, which is concerning, because it’s the most important tool for social mobility and opportunity for so many. Yes, enrollment rates have continued to go up in overall trend, as shown below in a graph from the National Center for Education Statistics. And the number of minority enrollees has also increased, with Hispanic student percentages rising from 4% to 14% and the number of black students rising from 10% to 15% over the 1976 to 2011 period.
But putting the good news to the side for the moment, there are some clear signs that getting a college education is still a struggle for many.
The student debt problem
Simply because many students attend college doesn’t mean it’s easier to afford. For many students, the full brunt of the expensive is felt after graduation when student loans need to be repaid for years. According to the Project on Student Debt — an Institute for College Access and Success initiative — 69% of college seniors that graduated from a public or nonprofit college. The mean debt load was $28,400 per student. More importantly, the average debt increased by 2% from 2012 to 2013. The worst state, according to the Project, was New Hampshire at $32,795 with 76% of graduates having debt.
A press release in November 2014 emphasized the need for better data collection on the issue, but notes that an education is still important. “A college degree is still the best path to a job and decent pay, and while loans are increasingly needed to get through school, graduating with burdensome debt is not a foregone conclusion,” said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success. “Where you go to college matters, and the kind of loans you have matter, too,” she said. “Federal student loans come with crucial consumer protections like income-based repayment plans, while private loans offer little or no relief if you hit a rough patch.”Political spotlight on the problem
The Obama administration recently announced in a pre-State of the Union Address announcement that improving access to college and continued education will be a goal in the coming year. On Friday, President Barack Obama is headed to Knoxville, Tenn., to “propose ways to help more young Americans go to college and get ahead.”
The latest news on college tuition across the U.S. suggests that this effort is sorely needed. During the recession a college education was difficult to afford because so many families and students were struggling financially — those unlucky enough to graduate during that time were confronted by a grim job market, and to this day new graduates face a more difficult situation than they have in the past. The cost of continued education and the importance of a college education has been an emphasis Democrats have taken up for a while now, and the fact it’s still so emphasized suggests efforts thus-far haven’t solve the problem.
State funding changes
According to the United States Government Accountability Office, there’s another number we need to be considering — the percent of college revenue being covered by the state, versus that being covered by tuition. The GAO reports that the amount of college revenue covered by students has increased enormously between 2003 and 2012, as shown in the graph above.
The GAO included suggestions for the federal government on how to “expand incentives to states to improve affordability, such as creating new grants, providing more consumer information on affordability, or changing federal student aid programs.” For the first time in a long time, tuition grew past the cumulative contribution from states at 25% to 23%. On top of that, a separate report found that “over a 4.5-year period, accreditors — independent agencies recognized by the Department of Education — sanctioned about 8 percent of schools for not meeting accreditor standards.”
Also a concern was the fact that schools (between October 2009 and March of 2014) that had poor outcomes for students were “on average, no more likely to have been sanctioned by accreditors than schools with stronger student outcomes.” In other words, regulation may not be adequately showing whether or not education is of an acceptable quality using the measures that are currently in place. In combination, all of the information from the GAO suggests that federal, state, and local reform are needed so that students struggling to go to college not only can pay for it, but also can graduate with value they deserve for their expense.
Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS
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