Shifting the Focus to College Affordability

Numerous reports and articles have brought attention to the need to increase the numbers of individuals with some form of postsecondary degree or certificate in the U.S. The conversation about this need for more credentials almost always focuses on the national agenda for competitiveness and productivity; it rarely focuses on what this agenda means for individual students. 

On April 24, 2013, Dr. Ronald Ehrenberg addressed the implications for students pursuing majors that result in higher paying jobs in the final colloquium in a series jointly sponsored by the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development and the American Institutes for Research (AIR). His critique of recent efforts to provide earnings information for graduates of individual colleges and universities raised a number of important issues related to the purpose of a postsecondary education.

The central issue Ehrenberg raised focused on the relationship between going to college and earnings and whether this relationships should even be examined. Once upon a time, individuals could go to college, major in whatever interested them, and be pretty sure that they would find employment. This is not necessarily the case in 2013. Tuitions have increased faster than inflation for numerous years and debt levels of graduates have reached an all-time high, fueling the interest in knowing what graduates of particular majors in particular institutions might earn. Concerns about earning potential often obscure the underlying issue of college affordability.

The Delta Cost Project, which I am pleased to lead at AIR, attempts to address college affordability from a slightly different angle than many other analysts. While many bemoan rising tuitions and are quick to point to state appropriations in our public colleges and universities, rightfully so, few look at how colleges and universities spend their money. With competing demands for limited resources, it is unlikely that state appropriations for public higher education will bounce back to pre-recession levels. So if higher education institutions want to keep tuition down, they need to think about where their money is going. 

Rita Kirshstein is a managing director at the American Institutes for Research and a senior advisor for the CCRS Center.

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