Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press
YPSILANTI, Mich. — It was a transformation that was, by historical standards, remarkably swift: The decade of the 2000s saw a fundamental shift in how Americans answer the question "Who will pay for college?"
More than ever, students and their families must foot the bill at public universities. And that bill is higher than ever.
Realizing higher education would be essential to succeed in the emerging economy, Americans aspired and flocked to higher education as never before over the last 10 years. But over that same span, the 50 states did less — much less, factoring in the increased demand — and asked students and parents to do more. That was true even during the flush years in the middle of a decade bookended by two economic downturns.
The federal government, meanwhile, picked up much of the slack, with each of the last three presidents substantially increasing spending. But while the billions Washington poured into student financial aid helped many students, they did little to stem price increases. Low-income students got some relief in expanded Pell Grants, and a massive increase in tuition tax credits has disproportionately benefited families earning over $100,000. Middle-class families have borne the brunt.
Frustrations over high student debt have been front and center for the Occupy Wall Street protesters. Politicians have noticed, too: On Wednesday, in Denver, President Obama announced a series of steps that would do little to relieve students of the burden of paying for college, but aim to at least protect more borrowers from monthly repayment burdens that would ruin their finances or keep them from choosing public service jobs.
That may be the best the federal government can do in an era when almost everyone wants to go to college, Washington's budgetary well has run dry, and the states either cannot or will not play the same role in supporting public higher education that they have in the past.
"There's been a fundamental and permanent shift in how we see the financing of higher education in the United States," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Higher Education. "Increasingly, higher education is seen as being almost exclusively a private good and therefore something that individuals ought to pay for by themselves."
Some lament the change, arguing society benefits when more students graduate and suffers when they don't. States traditionally have supported higher education, they say, and if it's more important than ever, why cut back now?
Others welcome the shift, arguing individuals who most directly benefit should pick up more of the costs. And colleges, they argue, could do more to hold down costs themselves.
On Wednesday, the College Board released the latest figures on the cost of college, and they were demoralizing enough: Four-year public colleges increased tuition 8.3 percent, and the cost of a full credit load has passed $8,000. That doesn't count room and board, and hundreds more for textbooks.
The trend is more apparent when you look at data from the College Board and other groups for the whole decade:
—In 2000, fewer than one-third of Americans said college was essential to be successful. Now the figure is well over half, and with jobs scarce, enrollment is surging. Enrollment grew 9 percent during the 1990s; during the 2000s it rose 33 percent, to roughly 21 million.
—State support, however, didn't keep up. Funding per student rose 6 percent in the 1980s and 5 percent in the 1990s. Then, between 2000 and 2010, state support fell 23 percent after accounting for inflation.
The effects are clearly visible in the prices that public colleges, which enroll 80 percent of students, charged. In the 1980s tuition rose 4.5 percent annually above general inflation. In the 1990s it rose 3.2 percent. In the 2000s: 5.6 percent.
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