Today the holders of bachelor’s degrees have enormous advantages over those whose education stopped with a high school diploma. Median lifetime income? 84% higher. Unemployment rate? 4.5% vs. 8.3%, last year. More likely to have health and retirement benefits. More satisfied with their careers, healthier, and more involved as citizens and parents.
Getting those advantages, though, is a huge challenge for low- and middle-income people in an era of soaring college costs, declining state funding for public colleges and universities, and shrinking family incomes. Over the past 30 years, the sticker price for tuition and fees at private, nonprofit four-year institutions rose by an inflation-adjusted 153%. At public two-year colleges, the increase was 164%, and at public four-year colleges a whopping 231%. Including tuition, fees, room, and board, the average private, nonprofit four-year school is priced at almost $41,000 per year. Among public four-year institutions, the average is over $18,000.
The Institute for College Access and Success gives a vivid example of how things have changed: “In 1980, at the average public four-year school, a student who worked full time over the summer at a minimum wage job could cover tuition the next year and have the 2012 equivalent of $1,923 left over.” But in 2012, under exactly the same circumstances, the student could earn only 42% of tuition, coming up $4,764 short.