Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
Like many parents I know, I wake up at night wondering how I'll afford to send my three kids to college. Unfortunately, these aren't just neurotic, middle of the night musings, according to several recent reports.
Last week in the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out that rising tuition costs at public colleges and universities threaten the future of a growing number of American children, and Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman made a similar point in the New York Times.
Both Reich and Krugman observe that the U.S. once led the world in providing education for all, but it has lost this leadership role in recent years as budget cuts have led to tuition and fee increases that are placing college out of reach for more and more American children. Since the 1980's, tuition at public universities has consumed an increasingly larger chunk of American families' median annual income, according to Reich — from more than 10 percent in 2005, to 25 percent today — and rising fast.
Poorer families are being hit particularly hard, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Education Trust, which found that families in the lowest income bracket today, "pay or borrow an amount equivalent to nearly three-quarters of their annual income to send just one child to a four-year college."
This isn't only a terrible burden on individual families; it's destructive for our country as a whole. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman contends that education is a more important natural resource than oil, basing his argument on research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). He concludes, "Add it all up and the numbers say that if you really want to know how a country is going to do in the 21st century, don’t count its oil reserves or gold mines, count its highly effective teachers, involved parents and committed students. 'Today’s learning outcomes at school,' says Schleicher [of the OECD], 'are a powerful predictor for the wealth and social outcomes that countries will reap in the long run.'”
If these experts are right, parents shouldn't be the only ones worrying about how they're going to get their kids to college — it's an issue that concerns us all. Says Reich, "[P]ublic higher education isn't just a private investment. It's a public good. Our young people — their capacities to think, understand, investigate and innovate — are America's future."