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Jewish World Review Msrch 2, 2004 / 9 Adar, 5764

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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Consumer Reports

A truly cruel college squeeze

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | This is rapidly becoming the unequal opportunity society. Young people face a double whammy: Colleges are harder to get into, and only the well-off can afford a college education these days. The numbers could not be more clear. A mere 4.5 percent of young people from the lowest income quartile get a B.A. degree by the age of 24; 12 percent from the next quartile get one; 25 percent from the third quartile, and 51 percent of students in the top quartile. Could it be that America is now resegregating higher education, only this time not by color but by class?

States are struggling with big budget deficits. In turn, they are forcing cuts on public colleges and state universities, which educate 80 percent of our students. The schools are cutting costs by reducing education programs and limiting enrollment, and, critically, they are raising their fees. In public four-year colleges and universities, average tuition is up 14 percent, to $4,694. That marks the second straight year of huge tuition increases, according to the College Board. The total cost for tuition, room, and board now averages $10,636, up $950 from about a year ago. This is roughly one sixth of the total pretax income for the average middle-class family and 70 percent of yearly incomes for low-income families (which is up from 40 percent in 1976).

States are struggling with big budget deficits. In turn, they are forcing cuts on public colleges and state universities, which educate 80 percent of our students. The schools are cutting costs by reducing education programs and limiting enrollment, and, critically, they are raising their fees. In public four-year colleges and universities, average tuition is up 14 percent, to $4,694. That marks the second straight year of huge tuition increases, according to the College Board. The total cost for tuition, room, and board now averages $10,636, up $950 from about a year ago. This is roughly one sixth of the total pretax income for the average middle-class family and 70 percent of yearly incomes for low-income families (which is up from 40 percent in 1976).

Footing the bill. Even community colleges suffered a 14 percent increase in tuitions. The federal Pell Grant for low-income students, which 25 years ago covered almost half of their total costs, now covers only about a fifth of typical college costs, even as the maximum grant amount tripled. Once, the maximum Pell Grant covered 84 percent of costs at a public, four-year college; today it covers just 39 percent, while the maximum federally subsidized student loan has stayed the same for a decade. More and more middle-class kids are struggling to fund their college tuition through a package of family money, loans, or grants. Families are being forced to scour the open market because of the caps on federal subsidies. The result is that during the past two years alone, nonsubsidized bank lending to students shot up 41 percent, to $7.5 billion.

Such trends are distressing. Four-year tuitions at in-state colleges have jumped a staggering 85 percent in the past decade, and at community colleges, 53 percent. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 170,000 qualified students could not even afford to attend a community college this year, and 43 percent of qualified middle-class youngsters can't afford to go to a four-year school. Their options are limited to local community colleges.

Meanwhile, schools are overwhelmed with almost 16 million students, a record. Even students with good grades are being denied admittance. This problem —this injustice —is not going to go away, as the children of baby boomers reach college age and as immigrants and laid-off workers look to enhance their skills.

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Politicians know this is a hot issue. Americans overwhelmingly agree that a college degree is the single most important factor affecting a young person's chance of success. Nine of 10 parents believe that a college education is as important as a high school diploma used to be. Over 75 percent believe that getting a college education is more important than it was just 10 years ago. So the Democrats are scrambling to address this issue. Sen. John Edwards is offering a free year of college. Former Gov. Howard Dean wanted to guarantee $10,000 a year in college loans; Sen. John Kerry has proposed a four-year degree free, in exchange for two years of public service. These are interesting ideas; they need to be fleshed out with more detail.

Where's all the money going to come from? Raising Pell Grants to cover this year's average increases in tuition, room, and board would cost about $4.6 billion. Raising the lifetime borrowing limit of $23,000 to $30,000, with Washington paying the interest on loans to needy students when they're in school, would cost the government $20 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In the meantime, parents are going more deeply into debt. Every year, more than a million families take out a second mortgage on their homes just to pay for education for their kids. So, just at the time when the jobs of the future will require more knowledge and technical talents, we face a situation in which getting a college degree is largely determined by the financial well-being of parents.

For a society that believes and offers equal opportunity to those people who play by the rules, this is a disgrace. We must mobilize the political will to invest in the real future of America, namely, in the education of our young.

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JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

Up


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© 2001, Mortimer Zuckerman