Why Public Universities Are Now a Bad Bargain for the Middle Class (Opinion)

Ann McClure's picture
Friday, March 9, 2012

Here's a higher education shocker: Thanks to tuition hikes at California's state universities on the one hand, and the generous financial aid policies of Harvard on the other, attending the Ivy League university is actually a better deal for middle-class students from the Golden State, the San Jose Mercury News reports.

The numbers are clear: Between 1997 and 2007, tuition in the U.S. rose by 94% at public four-year colleges, but only by 22% at private nonprofit four-year colleges. College enrollment also rose 38% over that period, and as with any commodity, increasing demand drives up prices.

As the head of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, Ronald G. Ehrenberg, notes in the Winter 2012 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, undergraduate tuition has outpaced the rate of inflation by an average of 3.5 percentage points a year.

Public universities, with their shrinking support from state governments, still provide significant tuition breaks to the poor. But they can only do so much. Top private universities, by contrast, have massive endowments to support their educational mission and the wherewithal to spend that money on students who are higher up on the economic ladder.

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