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As price of college rises, how will higher education evolve to be affordable?

October 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
A new report shows the cost of college is rising at a slower rate, but that does little good in easing the struggle for affordable higher education, with fewer funds available for student aid and household incomes at a plateau. What options do students face? Ray Suarez talks to Jeff Selingo of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: We turn now to one of the more vexing economic issues for many U.S. households: the rising cost of college.

A new report from the College Board, the group that owns the SAT test, finds costs at four-year public schools posted the smallest increase in more than 30 years, up 2.9 percent — the bad news, federal aid for undergraduates declined by 9 percent over a two-year period.

Ray Suarez takes it from here.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeff Selingo watches all of this closely. He’s the author of “College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students,” is a contributing editor to “The Chronicle of Higher Education.”

And, Jeff, just to be abundantly clear, it didn’t get cheaper to go to public college and university in the United States. It just got more expensive more slowly, right?

JEFFREY SELINGO, College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students: Exactly.

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I mean, this is the smallest increase we have seen in a couple of decades, but, of course, that’s on a larger base. So the percentages seem small, but we’re still talking about several hundred dollars on the average public college tuition in the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Prices in the economy went up 1.7 percent last year. College went up 2.9 percent. What’s been driving the much faster increases in the cost of buying a college education vs. the cost of everything else we buy?

JEFFREY SELINGO: Well, colleges, first of all, are very personnel heavy. Right? And so it requires a lot of people to teach at colleges.

And unlike most other pieces of the economy, where technology has reduced the number of people you need to produce a widget today compared to 1980, you still need one professor to teach 20 students, just like you did in 1980.

And the other thing is that college costs so much because it can cost so much. We tend to have a belief in this country the more something costs, just like a luxury car, the better it must be.

RAY SUAREZ: Aha, because it can cost so much.

Are we reaching a ceiling in college costs because of other pressures in the economy, wages not rising that quickly, savings stagnant in many families, and so on?

JEFFREY SELINGO: Well, I think the wage piece is a big piece, because we know that salaries and income in the United States has basically been flat or declining over the last couple of years.

And back in 2001, it took the average family less than 25 percent of their paycheck to go to college. Today, it takes 40 percent of their paycheck to go to college. At some point, families are going to say, what am I buying, what am I buying for what I’m spending on college education?

It doesn’t mean that they won’t go. It just means that they’re going to look for more valuable alternatives and cheaper alternatives.

RAY SUAREZ: Does that mean that parents and family and students as individuals have a little bit more bargaining power on their side of the table? Can they, by resisting these prices, steering themselves to cheaper places to be educated, temper some of these price increases?

JEFFREY SELINGO: They could. It depends on where they’re going. At the top schools, probably not, because most of the top schools have 10 times as many applicants, qualified applicants, as they have spots.

But at other schools — and we see this, this fall — where a number of kind of middle-tier schools didn’t have enough students to fill their seats — at those institutions, students have a lot more bargaining power than they did even a couple of years ago, because a student in a seat is better than no student in one of those seats.

RAY SUAREZ: The high school graduation rates are going up. This is a pretty big generational cohort. There are still a lot of kids looking for seats in colleges, aren’t there?

JEFFREY SELINGO: There are still a lot. But it depends where you live. Right? And there’s a lot of colleges in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast where high school graduation rates are actually falling because of demographics.

And there’s not as many colleges in the West and the South, where those rates are increasing.

RAY SUAREZ: After all these years of tuition increases that way outstrip the rate of inflation, are we opening up a national conversation to look at radically different ways of paying for school, reducing some of the pressure on parents who are also, at the same time, trying to save up for their own retirement?

JEFFREY SELINGO: Well, I think we definitely are.

President Obama really put a lot of money in his first term into higher education, and nothing changed in terms of college prices. As you mentioned, they kept going up. And so back in August, he took that bus tour through New York and Pennsylvania, and he basically said federal aid can’t keep chasing increasing college prices. We have to do something different.

And I think where you’re going to see this is on the cost side of things. We always talk about the price, but not the cost of delivering education. So, I think we’re going to look at new ways of delivering college courses through technology and other ways of delivering those courses.

And I think on the other side, you’re going to see income-based contingent loans, where students can pay a piece of their income after college toward their loans. So I think, on both sides, both the cost side and the price side, you’re going to see changes in want future because I think the federal government particularly is saying, we can no longer keep up with the rising prices of colleges.

RAY SUAREZ: There’s even some suggestions that it not be four years anymore, aren’t there?

JEFFREY SELINGO: There are.

And there’s ways of doing this. We base learning on how much time somebody spends in a seat. There’s nothing magical about four years of college and 120 credits for a bachelor’s degree. We have no idea if somebody spends four years in college if they actually learned something while they were there.

And so there there’s move now towards competency-based education, which is basically, what do you know? And if you know it, you move on, and in some cases, you can finish college in less than four years.

RAY SUAREZ: At the same time as this country’s news has been dominated by the troubles with the opening of the health care exchanges, a lot of college-aged students looking to apply have found they’re having problems with the Common App that was designed to make things easier. What’s going on?

JEFFREY SELINGO: So, this is the application where you could apply to multiple schools with one application. And some schools add a few things on to that. But it makes applying to college much easier. It’s why many students now apply to 10 colleges.

And when I went to college, it was like you didn’t want to do more than two applications because it was a lot of work. Well, now what’s happening is, just like the health care exchanges, people are running into big technology problems because of changes the Common App made this year. And a number of schools have had to push back their deadlines for their early applications as a result.

RAY SUAREZ: Any sign that this will be solved by the time we reach the early part or the late part of this year, the early part of next year?

JEFFREY SELINGO: Yes.

They’re working on this. The schools are really frustrated. There are alternatives, of course, where students can still apply kind of the old-fashioned way. But this has kind of been definitely a black eye on the part of the Common App. And if I’m a family applying for health care and applying for college at the same time, I think I probably would want to throw my computer out the window at this point.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeff Selingo, College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, thanks a lot.

JEFFREY SELINGO: Great to be here.