I started my college career as an undergraduate in 1984. After graduating in 1987, I went on the graduate school and then ended up as a professor. As such, I know a bit about college then and now.
College enrollment has increased significantly since then (the 1980s). Naturally, part of this is due to the increase in population: if there are more people, there will be more people in college even if the percentage of college students remains the same. Another factor is that colleges are seen as being more open to minorities, women and low income people than in the past. It is also true that people have a greater need for the college degree, thanks to degree inflation. Jobs that once required just a high school degree now require college degrees.
Ironically, as enrollment has increases, budgets for state schools have been cut. For example, my own university has been hit with massive cuts as our enrollment shoots ever upward. One impact is that class sizes have been getting ever larger. For example, my Introduction to Philosophy class used to cap at 30. When I taught it in the fall, it had 63 students. Thanks to inflation and increases in insurance costs, I am actually making less money and teaching larger classes. There is currently talk of cutting salaries, reducing benefits, increasing class sizes and adding more classes to the faculty teaching load (I teach four classes per semester). As in the private sector, the people who do the actual nuts and bolts work are expected to do more with less.
Also somewhat ironically, as enrollment has increased and as most faculty are expected to do more for less, the cost of college has increased significantly. Back when I went to college, the average price was $2,119 per year. In 2009 the average price was $7,605. This is about twice what would be expected from inflation alone. Some of the increase can be accounted for in terms of new technology (the cost of computer labs and smart classrooms) and energy costs. However, one large factor is the same one that occurs in business and government: administration and bureaucracy. As such, a significant slice of tuition dollars does not go to paying for the actual process of education.
What is needed is, obviously enough, efforts to control costs. The place to begin is, of course, with administrative costs. Naturally, budget cuts are currently inflicted primarily on faculty (who teach) and staff (who actually do things). In this regard, education functions exactly like business and government.
Because of the greater cost, it is no shock that students need to turn to loans to pay for school. In 1993 about 45% of students took out loans. When I was an undergraduate, I took out loans-I finally paid them off during my first year as a professor. This year about 66% of students will take out loans for school. In 1995 the typical student graduated with about $10,000 in debt. This year’s students ended up with an average of $27,000. This means that a greater percentage of students will start out with school debt and that they will have more debt, which means they will have less to spend on other things, things that would help the general economy.
To make matters worse, unemployment is over 9%. When I was in school, it was about 6%. Salaries have improved a bit ($46,600 in 1995 and $50,034 for college graduates today), but clearly not that much relative to the increase in debt.
As such, today’s students can expect to take out loans to pay a lot to be in larger classes taught by underpaid and overworked professors. Once they graduate, they can expect to have a lot of debt and a decent salary-if they can find a job. Of course, with the budget cuts hitting many state schools, tomorrow’s graduates might be competing with yesterday’s faculty for jobs.
You can see some spiffy graphics of all the data here.