James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Can Americans Afford College?

by James M. Lindsay
January 26, 2012

A customer counts her money while waiting in line. A customer counts her money while waiting in line. (Jessica Rinaldi/courtesy Reuters)

Earlier today I noted the obvious: college costs are skyrocketing. But cost growth is only half of the equation when it comes to deciding whether college is affordable; the other half is income growth. If your costs go up, but your paycheck goes up even more, you are fine. The problem for most Americans is that their real incomes (that is, adjusted for inflation) haven’t even begun to keep pace with rising tuition costs. Over the past thirty years, real median household income has risen only 13 percent. Worse yet, real median household income is actually lower today than it was in 1999.

That is a scary graph for parents and students looking at college. They know that staying competitive in today’s economy demands being above average. But if they have to borrow to pay for college and their future wages follow a path like the one in the graph above, they will have a hard time paying back their debts. As I heard someone say recently, we could be looking at the first generation of college students who will still be paying off their college loans as their kids get ready to head off to college.

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  • Posted by Ole Holsti

    College costs appear to continue skyrocketing. The President of the Univ. of North Carolina just announced that as an effort to deal with the problem, university system wide tuition will “only” rise 8.8% next year. One of the largest cost culprits is sports. Football seems to need a dozen or so coaches, and when one is fired, the next one [e.g. Urban Meyer at Ohio State] comes in for $4 million per year, plus lots of other perks. And somehow even coaches fired for reason [e.g. at UNC, etc.] are paid off in full. Some biggies [e.g. Michigan] can make a profit, but most universities lose money on athletics.

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