When I graduated from New York University, in 2001, the cost per year including room and board was about $35,000. It is now about $70,000 — doubled in less than a generation. Should my 1-year-old son apply 16 years from now, a similar percentage increase would price his dad’s alma mater at $140,000 a year. That’s more than $500,000 for an undergraduate degree.
Manhattan, of course, is expensive, but location isn’t the issue. Similarly extravagant price increases have occurred at private universities across the country. Over the period, the College of William & Mary in Virginia has more than doubled, from $23,000 to $56,000; in Louisiana, Tulane University has gone from $35,000 to $65,000.
Attending an in-state, public university is cheaper but by no means cheap. In my home state of New Jersey, Rutgers is north of $30,000 a year for in-state students. And though it, too, has doubled since 2001, the relative bargain has helped make state schools like this highly competitive: in New Jersey, two of the Top 5 toughest colleges to get into are public — in a state that includes both the renowned Stevens Institute of Technology and an Ivy Leaguer, Princeton.
Though at first glance heightened public university admissions standards may look like good news, the negatives outweigh the positives. Price-conscious students who might otherwise attend private universities now take slots away from those who — for reasons academic or economic — have fewer collegiate options.
Unintentionally, those who understandably balk at taking out the equivalent of a home mortgage for an undergraduate degree deter less academically gifted or economically fortunate students from attaining a higher education. In this fashion, runaway tuition inflation has hindered access not only to private universities, but also to public colleges intended to provide a solid, affordable college education for in-state students.
In a society in which a college education has become a near-prerequisite for a middle-class lifestyle, this trickle-down sticker shock has repercussions. We are limiting upward mobility by narrowing the main gateway to the American dream.
Those who do attend college are increasingly finding themselves hamstrung by debt. More than two-thirds of students are graduating with outstanding loans, owing an average of $35,000. That figure has tripled in two decades.
Out of sheer necessity, many young adults today are encouraged to value money over morality. Few people who owe tens of thousands of dollars in college loans are likely to feel particularly altruistic or charitable. The likely end product of our higher education industrial complex is a 22-year-old forced to dig out of a fiscal hole by favoring immediate paychecks over innate passions. Debt is dream-crushing.
Locally, there is hope. This week, New York became the first state to offer free tuition at four-year state colleges for students whose families earn less than $125,000. This momentum, however, is not evident on the national landscape.
In the 2016 election, the Democratic platform similarly included the sweeping goal of eliminating college tuition at in-state public colleges and universities for families making $125,000 or less per year. Donald Trump also expressed some constructive ideas, including a monthly loan repayment cap of 12.5 percent of a borrower’s income, and loan debt forgiveness after 15 years, down from the current 20.
But college affordability, like many other pressing issues, has become a casualty of the non-stop circus that defined his candidacy and so far his presidency. The target of the latest presidential Twitter rant has largely overshadowed real problems plaguing society.
The bluster of building walls, banning Muslims, and demonizing dissenters has pushed the college cost crisis so far down the national priorities list as to be invisible. Meanwhile, a bubble is building that America seems as likely to successfully pre-empt as the internet, housing and financial busts before it.
Christopher Dale is a freelance writer who writes on society, politics and sobriety-based issues.