Higher Education Spending: Assessing Policy Priorities
Joseph Losco and Brian L. Fife
Every September, the College Board issues a report on the cost of a year of college education. 1 The public reaction is typically quite predictable: sticker shock. The price of a college degree has grown consistently above the average level of inflation since the 1960s, with the most significant increases in the 1980s. Since 1980, the dollar cost for tuition at all types of institutions of higher education has tripled. Even controlling for inflation, the price of a college education doubled since 1980, making education costs rise faster than the cost of virtually all other consumer goods and services, rivaling the dramatic increases in the cost of medical care over this period ( National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education, 1998: 160-161 [hereinafter referred to as NCCHE]). At the same time, the ability of average Americans to pay for higher education diminished, as wages, especially for low-skill workers, stagnated or decreased. Those who can most benefit from a college education are finding it is most inaccessible. Ironically, while twentieth-century citizens witnessed a democratization of higher education as it ceased to remain the prerogative of a wealthy elite, increases in the price of attaining a college degree threaten to reverse this trend at the dawn of the new millennium.
College officials are quick to point out that not everyone pays the sticker price for tuition. Scholarships, grants, and other types of financial aid reduce the "net" price for many attendees. In fact, during the 1995-1996 academic year, 66 percent of four-year students in public institutions and 63 percent of two-year students in public institutions received some form of financial aid. The figure for private institutions was 80 percent at four-year schools and 82 percent for two-year schools ( NCCHE, 1998: 3). Still, after factoring in the