Friday, December 5, 2008

There's a rural angle in this story about rising higher education costs. . .

But as with so many reports in the national media, that angle is not expressed. The headline is attention grabbing: "College May Become Unaffordable for Most in the U.S.," and it appeared in the New York Times on December 3. It has been one of the most emailed stories on the Times website since it appeared two days ago.

Tamar Lewin's story reports on the biennial report of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. It shows college tuition and fees rose 439% between 1982 and 2007. Meanwhile, the median family income during that period rose only 147%. This means student borrowing is up sharply

“If we go on this way for another 25 years, we won’t have an affordable system of higher education,” said Patrick M. Callan, president of the center, a nonpartisan organization that promotes access to higher education.
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“The middle class has been financing it through debt,” he said. “The scenario has been that families that have a history of sending kids to college will do whatever if takes, even if that means a huge amount of debt.”

The story also discusses the consequences for families whose incomes are in the bottom fifth in the nation. For them, a year at a public university costs 55% of median income. Community colleges are hardly more affordable for these families, consuming 49% of the poorest families' median income.

A couple of things are striking about this information in relation to rural youth. First, of course, poverty rates are higher and more enduring in rural communities than in urban ones. This means rural youth seeking a college degree are more likely to be affected by rising tuition costs, and that those costs are more likely to represent a higher proportion of a rural family's income.

Second, rural families may be less likely to embrace an ethos that children should go to college, whatever the cost. Again, this is related to the current education gap between metro and non-metro populations. While one in five urban residents over the age of 25 has a college degree, only one in eight rural adults in that age group does.

Lewin also notes another report released this week from the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. It said that public higher education remains affordable, with tuition around $6,000/year for a public research university, about $3,200 for community college. But that group expressed concern that these schools will not remain affordable unless states adequately support them. It also called for public universities to "explore a variety of approaches to lower costs — distance learning, better use of senior year in high school, perhaps even shortening college from four years."

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