Affording a college education in the United States today is an issue of great concern for millions of families across the country. Costs at public four-year colleges have increased by over 250% over the past three decades with average tuition at a public university at $15,000 and $31,000 at a private institution. Students carry an average debt between $25,000 to over $35,000 when they graduate without necessarily having a guaranteed livable wage job in their immediate prospects. Job placement for students graduating from college has been particularly grim during the last 5 years of the economic downturn. In September 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that unemployment rates for 20-24 years olds was 12.9% compared to 7.2% of the entire workforce.

A recent study that looked at the economic well-being of three cohort groups of graduates – 1993, 2000, and 2008 – found that students in the latter group had the most debt compared to the others. One interesting finding from this study was that although the amount of debt had increased in the 2008 group, average borrowing from federal sources had declined. This might suggest that students are borrowing money for college-related expenses from private sources that might have more predatory lending practices. In addition, although, total debt had increased for the 2008 cohort group, the average earnings of these graduates were $5000 less than the group who graduated eight years earlier in 2000 demonstrating a profile of large numbers of students with diminished earnings and increased debt burdens.

President Obama, recently, unveiled an ambitious, new agenda to address college costs and make college affordable for more families. He has proposed a new ratings system so that students can have the information they need when selecting among colleges that provide the best value. Other elements of his plan include challenging states to fund public colleges based on performance, challenging colleges to offer students a greater ranger of affordable, high-quality options than they have today, allowing borrowers to cap their payments at 10% of their monthly income, and other measures to help students with existing debt to manage their financial situation.

Affordability of a college education is a national crisis in America today, especially when we consider that our economy and our current labor market requires knowledge-based skills and creative thinking that are best acquired in academic institutions of higher learning. Students will go to college and remain in college only if they can afford to do so and feel secure that their debt burden can be managed once they graduate. Increasing the maximum of grants and awards are an option, innovations in federal financing are another possibility. But a central issue that has to be addressed is how to limit the ever-increasing cost of tuition. Colleges and universities bear the full responsibility to resolve that critical piece so that college education can be seen as a worthwhile investment for students of all income levels in the country.

Share your thoughts on how to make college more affordable. What impact will President Obama’s proposal on creating a rating system of colleges and their performance have on student choices for higher education? What are the implications of rising college costs for diversity on campuses?

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