The High Cost of Education

It’s probably not entirely coincidental that I deposited another $500 in my grandson’s Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA) after reading The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education’s latest report on education, particularly the part that gave most states, including the one where I live, an “F” for affordability.

In the section of their report entitled “Measuring Up 2004: A Ten-Year Perspective: Higher Education Stalled Despite High School Improvements” the organization points out that “Although a larger number of high school students are better prepared for education or training beyond high school, these gains have not translated into higher rates of enrollment in higher education.” Certainly a major reason is that “Pervasively dismal grades in affordability show that for most American families college is less affordable now than it was a decade ago. The rising cost of attending college has outpaced the growth in family income.”

Perhaps worst of all if you’re at all concerned about the growing split between the rich and the poor were their findings that “The nation’s gaps in college participation between affluent and poor students have widened,” hardly an unexpected finding when you consider the rapidly rising costs of higher education and the failure of financial aid to keep pace with those costs.

According to the average costs for 2003-2004 for two-year public schools are $1,905 (up 13.8 percent from last year) while four-year public colleges are $4,694 (up 14.1 percent from last year). Considering that these rising costs are taking place when salaries have remained static or fallen for the poor and lower middle class, the outlook for future costs seems bleak.

How does one account for such steep rises in college tuition? While there seems to be few attempts to explain such increases, USA Today’s suggestion that they “stem from state cutbacks in higher-education budgets to close gaping shortfalls in recent years” seems to coincide with what has happened in my own state. Federal cuts in aid to the states accompanied by increasing demands by voters to eliminate “unnecessary” taxes have forced states to decrease college budgets and cut the number of students admitted.

Personally, I agree with the USA editorial that “While the savings may help balance the books for now, they will cost states dearly in the long run. An investment in higher education today produces a handsome return in taxes, as employers are drawn to the state to take advantage of a highly skilled workforce.” In other words, once again society is tempted to sacrifice long-term gains for short-term gratification in the form of tax cuts.

If international companies continue to outsource jobs to third world countries, it will become increasingly important that our own workers are better and better educated. As USA Today points out, “Not only do college graduates earn $20,000 a year more than high school graduates, but they’re more likely to find jobs in an increasingly demanding global economy.”

Though it would be foolish to deny that part of America’s industrial growth has been fueled by the exploitation of cheap labor from waves of immigrants and abundant resources, it’s equally hard to deny that the country’s educational level has been a major factor in our industrial success. In fact, perhaps the greatest difference between third-world economies and ourselves is the educational level of our workers.