Between 1982 and 2012, college tuition and fees have risen, on average, by 603 percent, according to data compiled by the Higher Education Policy Institute. Over that same period, the Consumer Price Index has risen 130 percent, and median family income 148 percent.
It’s a cycle that’s tough to break: Students face more pressure than ever before to go to college, in an economy in which, increasingly, a post-secondary degree is necessary to break out of minimum-wage territory. Government assistance has vastly expanded to help students get that education, but it also fuels spiraling costs.
Moreover, the struggling economy has only made things worse, as states cut higher-ed spending to balance their budgets, and public universities make up the cuts by raising tuition.
Just what Obama can do to shake up that system is unclear, even if he is able to get Congress to cooperate with him. A major rethinking of the current system – how it’s funded, how we conceive of higher education and who pays for it, and how such education is delivered – is likely needed, but such game-changing solutions are politically difficult.
The Obama plan aims to set up a rating system by 2015 and to start using that system to distribute student aid by 2018. For students, opting for a highly rated college means access to larger grants and more affordable loans. The aim of the plan is to give institutions an incentive to cut costs and ensure better outcomes for disadvantaged students. But such a plan would be controversial and require complex legislation in a typically gridlocked Congress.
“Part of the reason the federal government hasn’t been able to do anything is less a technical issue than a political one,” says Amy Latinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation. “The federal government can do a lot. Obama on his own can’t do much.”
While student loans and interest rates often get the most attention – such as the heated debate earlier this summer over the rate on certain subsidized federal student loans – most higher-education observers agree that the more significant issue for family budgets is the skyrocketing cost of college.