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Derrick Z. Jackson

A crisis of spiraling tuition

Colleges must volunteer — or be forced — to address rising costs

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / August 31, 2010

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THE COST of college has become unpatriotic.

In a speech to the Urban League in July, President Obama bemoaned the nation’s drop from first in the world to 12th in measures of college completion. This situation is “economically indefensible’’ and “morally inexcusable,’’ he said, and “all of us are going to have to roll up our sleeves to change it.’’

Graduation rates aside, the most morally inexcusable aspect of college is the unbridled cost of getting in. It is clear who should be first to roll up their sleeves: college presidents. Obama should declare their tuitions and fees a state of emergency and call a national summit to hold these institutions accountable.

At this very moment, loaded minivans and U-Haul trucks are crisscrossing America in the transport of the nation’s 23.7 million undergraduate college students. They are arriving with dreams no less lofty than students of previous generations. A record 74 percent of female high school graduates and 66 percent of male high school graduates enrolled in college in 2009. While these high numbers might seem encouraging, the problem is that most of these students are also guaranteed unprecedented debt burdens no matter their final GPA.

Since 1990, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the price of tuition, fees, room, and board at private and public four-year colleges has risen between three and four and a half times the increase in average family income. At least 58 colleges, including many New England schools, now charge between $200,000 to $225,000 for four years. Mark Taylor, the chair of Columbia University’s religion department and author of a forthcoming book on college reform, recently estimated in The New York Times that at current trends, those costs will zoom to $330,000 in 2020 and $525,000 in 2028.

For most families, it is impossible to put away enough money to prepare for such a burden. Last week, a Fidelity Investments survey found that 67 percent of parents have begun saving for college, compared with 58 percent in 2007. But the savings is only expected to cover 16 percent of college costs.

Obama, to his credit, has enacted major student loan reforms and boosted the Pell Grant program. But these steps will never keep up with rises in tuition, which have created one of the world’s worst gaps between tuition rates and available subsidies.

Even in the worst economic times since the Great Depression, universities behave with no conscience. Since the 2007-08 school year, according to the Department of Education, private not-for-profit colleges have raised tuition and fees 6.6 percent — well beyond the rate of inflation. State schools — fighting budget cuts from their state legislatures — raised them 9.1 percent. We just had a fractious national debate on health care, but the growth of college tuition rivals that of hospital costs.

College presidents have plenty of excuses. To hear many tell it, rising tuition is like a Cold War arms race, in which each school must build fancy new structures or prop up the football team to maintain competitive advantage over one another. No one has called them on their excuses. It will be interesting to see if Obama can, since he received $23 million from education interests in his election, compared to $1.7 million for rival John McCain. Employees of Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, and the University of California alone gave nearly $7 million to Obama, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

To be sure, some cost critics blame the federal government for providing too much aid, which seduces colleges to be lazy with costs. Parents also bear tremendous responsibility, so caught up in the arms race that too few stop to ask, “Is that $50,000-a-year school really going to make my kid three times happier than that $17,000 state school?’’

The reasons are complex, but the outcome is simple. Soon, not only the so-called “best’’ colleges but also state schools will be beyond the reach of the middle class. Obama should use the full power of his office to make clear that colleges cannot keep pushing up the cost of the American Dream.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.