Saturday, February 04, 2012

Why is Higher Education Hard to Pay for?

At the Google Scholarship and Libraries Conference in March 2006, Bruce James, CEO of the U. S. Government Printing Office, noted the steadily rising costs of higher education. He asked then why if we have one digital library why every campus needed a library at all? He contends that the growing cost issue in higher education will be dealt with and the closing of some libraries is going to happen as a result. I was at this conference in Ann Arbor and he got quite the reaction from the heavily librarian audience.

As I read for this course, the issues of who pays for higher education and why tuition keeps rising were in my mind. And I kept thinking about what Bruce James had said last year. He actually predicted that at the current rate of tuition inflation that a year of college would cost more than a house in 2050. It seems that no matter what anyone does, colleges and universities demand more money. And just as clearly, the state and federal governments do not want to pay and these costs keep getting passed onto the students and their families.

Heywood (2006) reported that parents are more concerned with paying for college costs than they are with retirement. He noted that parents often say, “Too bad about retirement savings; my kids are going to college” (p. 10). This is a big concern for many parents. However, many others have given up on the idea of college for their kids because even by sacrificing their own retirement they will be unable to save the sums necessary to pay for a college education. These parents focus on retirement and inform their children they are on their own for paying college costs.

Many students are paying for college costs by using credit cards. McGlynn (2006) noted that 24% of college students charge tuition on their cards. She also noted that another 71% are charging books and food. This is resulting in huge credit cards debts for students. Can this trend continue? Burned by high default rates by college students and recent college graduates, will credit cards will be more selective in issuing accounts and students will be less able to turn to them to pay for rising college costs?

Johnstone (2006) wrote about the complexity of higher education in the United States. One of the points he noted was that in the USA higher education access was directly connected to social class. The richer a person was, the more likely a person was to have access to higher education. In addition, having a college credential was a necessity for entry to the middle and upper classes. The poor and middle class are at a disadvantage in getting access to higher education. However, Johnstone also noted that taxpayers have grown more conservative recently and are less willing to support poor students.

I understand why the public has problems with funding an ever expensive higher education system. Porter (2002) reported that a bachelor’s degree added on average a million dollars in income to a person’s income. Why should the average middle class taxpayer give money to institutions of higher education which then goes to ultimately enrich students who will make lots of money? Why shouldn’t students fund their own eventual higher paychecks? However, I also think the public realizes that higher education access is not always fair. Some families can not afford to send children to college and this hurts these individuals unfairly. The public wants higher education to be affordable but does not necessarily want to keep throwing money at the endeavor.

This lack of access for some is happening. Fitzgerald (2004) noted that of 900,000 college-qualified high school graduates from low and moderate income families in 2002, over 500,000 were denied access to higher education by either being prevented from enrolling due to lack of proof of ability to pay or they simply did not attempt to enroll. He wrote, “Such a large group of college-qualified high school graduates denied access today portends substantial losses over the rest of the decade as the number of high school graduates rises to historic levels…This staggering toll suggests that one of the core values we hold as a nation – equal educational opportunity – now stands in stark contrast to reality of college access for low-and-moderate-income students in America today” (p. 14, 15).

Johnstone (2006) also wrote about the difficulty of determining how efficient institutions of higher education were in educating students. Bowen wrote a great deal about this as well. So why do students pay 30K a year to attend Harvard? Do the students learn more than the students who pay 5K a year to attend Central Michigan University? How exactly do we measure how efficient institutions of higher education are at teaching students?

Former US Secretary of Education Spellings introduced a plan to begin a process that may someday result in institutions of higher education having to demonstrate what their students learn. In other words, these schools will have to prove that their cost (from tuition or government aid) is worth it. Not surprisingly, the majority of academics are objecting to this. There really is no desire from the schools to actually be held accountable for student learning. This is being noted by both the public and by politicians. It may lead to more attempts at assessing student learning in the future.

The article by Gladieux and King (2005) discussed a variety of points which tie into a lot of the issues I have been writing about. They correctly noted that the American Constitution provides no role for the federal government in education. This means that states regulate and provide some funding for higher education for public institutions. Despite this, higher education impacts so many people that the federal government still takes an interest in even provides some funding.

Gladieux and King (2005) wrote that the federal government funds higher education through student aid and research and development. The feds give money to students directly via Pell grants and guaranteed student loans. They also fund research by giving money to schools to do studies which benefit many areas such as health and the military. In some cases, this type of support is rather substantial. The federal government also funds higher education by giving money for things like the ROTC.


Fitzgerald, B.K. (2004). Missed opportunities: Has college opportunity fallen victim to policy drift? Change, 36(4), 10-19.

Gladieux, L. E., King, J. E., & Corrigan, M. E. (2005). The federal government and higher education. In P. G. Altbach, R. O. Berdahl, & P. J. Gumport (Eds.), American higher education in the twenty-first century: Social, political and economic challenges (2nd ed., pp. 163-197). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Heywood, J.C. (2006). Parents worry more about paying for college than retirement, survey shows. Diverse issues in higher education, 22(25), 10.

D. Bruce Johnstone, “Higher Education Accessibility and financial Viability: the Role of Student Loans,” in Tres, Jaoquim and Francisco Lopez Segrera, Eds., Higher Education in the World 2006: The Financing of Universities. Barcelona: Global University Network for Innovation (GUNI) published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, pp. 84-101.

McGlynn, A.P. (2006). College on credit has kids dropping out. Education digest, 71(8), 57-60.

Porter, K. (2002). The value of a college degree. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education

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