College Affordability: A Defining Issue That Won’t Go Away – Davis Skorton – President of Cornell University
In the wake of President Obama’s State of the Union Address last month, many Americans are talking about college affordability. As they have been. As well they should. Along with health care and unemployment, the cost of college is a defining issue for our country. It is an issue that won’t go away.
Despite the outcry from some inside and outside of the “higher education establishment,” President Obama framed the issue in an important way. “Higher education can’t be a luxury,” he said, “[I]t is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.”
The unemployment rate for those with only a high school diploma is almost twice that of college graduates, and high school graduates earn substantially less than college graduates. Yet a far lower percentage of high school graduates from the lowest income groups enroll in college than their peers from the highest income groups. In 2009, there was a 29-point spread between the two groups, with 84 percent of students from high-income families enrolling in college right after high school, compared to only 55 percent of their low-income peers. One reason for this difference is the price of a college education.
The White House proposal, it is important to note, would reward schools that keep down net tuition (actual tuition that families pay, after subtracting financial aid) or restrain tuition growth, provide “good value” to students and their families, and enroll and graduate relatively higher numbers of students eligible for federal Pell Grants (which generally go to students from families earning less than $40,000 a year). The proposal offers incentives to promote affordability and quality, helps students and their families make more informed choices about colleges, keeps student loan interest low, and makes the American Opportunity Tax Credit — a college tax credit — permanent.
College affordability is a complex issue, however, and there is no “one-size-fits-all” model that can or should be imposed by the federal government.
A very few institutions, including Cornell, have been able to make substantial investments to enhance access. While Cornell’s tuition and recent tuition increases are higher than I wish they were, our decision to increase our need-based financial aid substantially has, since 2008-09, reduced the net cost of attendance for students in all income groups with demonstrated financial need. I recognize that Cornell’s policy has meant higher tuition for our wealthiest families, and that it has required cost containment in other areas. But for students from families with incomes up to about $112,000 (representing most American families and the first four quintiles of Cornell’s aid-eligible students), it actually cost less to attend Cornell in 2009-2010 than it did in 2001-02.
Category: Tuition Hikes