College as Financial Risk

From today’s Inside Higher Education comes an interesting analysis of the rising costs of a college education at the exact moment that college is becoming more vital for getting a job paying a living wage.

While teachers across the country are being flogged to raise achievement levels in K-12 schools, college is becoming less and less affordable for low-income kids according to Alan Contreras, particularly relative to the ability of young people to earn money to pay for their own schooling. Contreras notes :

In 1974, a year of attendance at the University of Oregon (the flagship university in my state) cost what a student working minimum wage could earn working 27 hours a week, year-round. That is a lot of work for a full-time student during the school year, but was not impossible and could be offset by more work hours in the summer.

By 2004, a full-time student would have to work 46 hours a week to pay for the same attendance. That is essentially impossible, cannot be sufficiently offset by summer earnings and is the fundamental gap that policy makers either don’t understand or choose to ignore because it is too depressing and can’t be fixed.

As of the time of my posting, the comments posted to this essay include references to data on rising college enrollments among students of color, suggesting, according to the commenter that low-income kids are finding ways to go to college anyway. He argues that even if students are going into debt, the returns for college are higher now than they were in 1974.

Beyond the problems with equating race and class, enrollment does not, of course, equate with completion, as this report from Pell makes clear. I’ve written before about how data on growing wage gaps between high school and college graduates are attributable, in large measure, to the steep decline in wages for jobs available to high school graduates rather than to growing returns on the investment in a college degree.

The students I find most difficult to support are those who find themselves in over their heads in college through no fault of their own: They’re already deeply in debt but barely making it, they need to take a break from school to earn some money, yet without degrees, they can find only minimum wage jobs. If they stay out of school to work for too long, their first payments on their loans come due, and the most direct way to forestall those payments is to come back to school, which means that they have to take out more loans, which means that they have to take a minimum number of credits to be eligible for loans, which means that they then have less time to work.

Another commenter on this essay states simply that “college is still perfectly doable for people without financial support from parents”.

Maybe. But by what logic are we making college a much bigger financial risk for poor and working class kids, at this historical moment when a degree is more important than ever?

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