The imagined attainability of college education

Not too long ago (depending on who you ask…) college was a very different experience. The application processes, classes offered, schedules and day-to-day environments were either much more open or distinctly closed off depending on location. For modern college students, internships are better than they were in the past, students and teachers have more avenues of communication than ever before and doing research is no longer limited to whatever books the college library happens to have in stock. Support systems are also much stronger, and high schools and colleges actively promote awareness of higher education to direct students into successful career-paths. Colleges have staff whose sole jobs are to make the experience of living on (or off) campus as easy as possible, and financial aid is more accessible than ever before.

First-year students entering college are a few years younger than in past decades, meaning that we, college students, are generally getting more and better opportunities at a younger age than what our parents were able to experience and theoretically we should be set up for greater successes earlier in life. More women and marginalized groups are entering college than in the past as well, though it’s a shocker to no one that men are more likely to drop out, choose to go to a trade school, or transition directly into work after graduating from high school. 

What all this means, unfortunately, is that the cost of college on average is more than double what it was in the 1980s when adjusted for inflation. According to Forbes, the average cost for a bachelor’s degree in 1989 was $52,892 adjusted for inflation, compared to 2016’s average four-year price tag of $104,480. Bigger colleges are basically free to do whatever they want with tuition money, and when their expenditures get too big for the budgets but a new office space needs to be built, tuition cost goes up a little here, fees increase a smidgen there, and it all adds up for both colleges/universities and the customers. Whether a student is paying for their degree or their parents are, this price model doesn’t match up with wage growth. Also according to Forbes, yearly average earnings grew from $54,042 to only $59,039 between 1989 and 2016 — that’s about $5,000 over 27 years. College has increased eight times as much as incomes have.

As a result, college — practically a necessity for anyone who wants to have a decently-paying job without going into manual labor — is more and more out of reach due to stagnating wages and increasing time demands from school, along with the threat of long-term student loan payments. There’s only so much that scholarships can do to further the myth of college being more affordable than ever, when it really still costs more than it should unless you’re one of the lucky few who have a rich family or if you do well enough in sports to get a nearly full ride. 

Our parents and older relatives lament us with tales of “when I was your age…” or “when we were in school, everything was much harder,” and in some ways this is true. Many students today enjoy a level of support from their families and schools that existed for only a few people in past generations, but as a result, expectations are higher for areas of performance and financial responsibility.