US college degrees: Still the best among world's top universities?
A US college degree has been the gold standard. But global economics and a crisis of confidence may be pushing the US down in rankings among top universities.
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"We are caught in a price spiral that is a good 30 years old now," says Kevin Carey, policy director at the Education Sector, a nonpartisan education policy think tank in Washington. US tuition costs outstrip by a wide margin those in Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, according to recent OECD figures. And while tuition rates for Singapore's prestigious NUS are as high as those at the best Ivy League schools, students have access to grants of up to 80 percent of the cost. KAUST in Saudi Arabia offers students free tuition, housing, medical care, and travel.Skip to next paragraph
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"I think it's important to define accessibility properly," says Mr. Carey, who nonetheless believes anyone bent on going to college in the US can.
This is where the rich tapestry of educational choices comes in: Tuitions at four-year private US institutions may average $26,273, but public colleges and universities charge in-state students an average of $7,020. At community colleges, it is $2,500.
But tuition is not the whole story. Add room and board, transportation, books, fees, and supplies, and a year at community college can cost $14,000.
"Students try to work while going to college or they try to go part time to spread it out," Carey says. "And working and part-time attendance are high risk factors for not finishing a degree."
To reverse this trend, President Obama increased federal funding for Pell Grants to a maximum of $5,550 per recipient. While it's welcome, many fear it is but a drop in the bucket. Students are having to borrow more than ever, according to Carey, whose think tank tracks growing loan default rates.
This has implications for society as a whole because there is a strong correlation between people's ability to get a postsecondary education and the wages they earn. Even though the federal government says that eight of the 10 fastest-growing US job categories don't require a bachelor's degree, the "college wage premium" – the difference in average salaries of a college and a high school graduate – is 70 percent. That makes access to higher education "the major reason for the widening of income distribution," says Tony Carnevale of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "In a sense, this is a social policy question. It hasn't been widely recognized as such, but it really is. You've got the segregation of kids from lower-income families, working-class families, minority kids in the two-year system getting stronger every year."
The economy, too, plays a part in the educational deficit. At least 39 states have cut assistance to public colleges and universities, and private institutions have seen returns on endowments fall 19 percent on average, the worst return since 1974. Across the country, many institutions have frozen salaries, imposed furloughs, trimmed campus services, and, in some cases, raised tuitions. These kinds of measures sent students into the streets in California earlier this year when they learned of a 32 percent undergraduate tuition hike in the University of California system. These kinds of measures also make top faculty look more keenly at offers from institutions abroad, which lure them with new labs, light teaching loads, and steady salaries.