Generational Effects And College Tuition

One key point in discussions about Warren’s (and Sanders’) college tuition plans that goes missing is that college is far more expensive than it used to be–that is, the costs have risen far more rapidly than wages. The problem is, it’s not clear if older voters, especially a subset of them, realize how much better they had it (boldface mine):

I graduated college in 1985 with $18,000 in student loans (about $42,500 in 2019 dollars), and then diligently paid them off over the next 10 years. As a father, I saved enough for my daughter’s education to assure that she could graduate college 100 percent debt-free. I’m not rich. I didn’t always make the best financial choices. But I worked hard, played by the rules, and made good on my debts. I could be the poster child for those claiming student loan forgiveness is “unfair.”

But you know what’s really unfair? The huge advantage I enjoyed graduating into the 1985 job market.

I graduated with a B.A. in history — not the most valuable field of study when it comes to job qualifications. But when I entered the job market in 1985, employers were eager to hire smart kids from good universities, whatever their degree. I got the first and only job I applied for — a cushy tech job I knew absolutely nothing about — at a starting salary of $35,000 a year. That’s $82,000 in today’s money.

But that’s how the job market worked for white, male boomers like me back in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s: Companies actually invested in their employees, expecting to train you on the job rather than requiring a STEM degree or years of experience at an under- or unpaid internship or fellowship

To be clear, the only reason I graduated with so much debt was I had the privilege of attending a pricey private university. But had I chosen to attend a public institution, I likely would have graduated free and clear. That’s not the case for young people today.

Whenever an old white guy like me reminds you that “I worked my way through college,” remind them that in the 1981-1982 academic year, the average in-state tuition and fees at a four-year public college or university was just $909 … back when the federal minimum wage was $3.35 an hour. That means I could have paid for my entire freshman year tuition and fees with less than seven weeks of full-time minimum-wage work at just about any shitty summer job. But over the past four decades, average public university tuition and fees have increased more than 11-fold, to $10,230 a year, while the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour has barely doubled.

Do the math: Today, the only way to work your way through college on the typical summer job would be to extend the summer break from June through February.

While Warren’s plan has some problems, including depending on Republican-run states to do the right thing (hint: they won’t), it would be more than what we have now and make a real difference.

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2 Responses to Generational Effects And College Tuition

  1. Adam Eran says:

    All too true. One thing overlooked is the effect of austerity. Federal funding for higher education have diminished 55% since 1972. State funding has diminished even more (37% for just the last decade in Oklahoma, for one example). Gee, I wonder why tuition has gone through the roof!

  2. Another thing is that back in the 1980’s college administrators weren’t making 6 digits.

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