I am honored by the invitation to speak to you today. The Pope Center is a very positive force in rethinking higher education in America. I am somewhat surprised, frankly, that I was invited to speak, since I am an economist, and economists suffer from two defects. First, they are deadly dull. It is usually more fun watching paint dry than listening to an economist. Indeed, it might even be preferable to have a hemorrhoid operation without an anesthetic from an unlicensed French physician to having to listen to an economist pontificate.
As college students begin a new academic year, many parents are reeling from tuition fees. This fall’s probable average 8% increase at public universities, added onto double-digit hikes in the two previous years, means tuition at a typical state university is up 36% over 2002 – at a time when consumer prices in general rose less than 9%. In inflation-adjusted terms, tuition today is roughly triple what it was when parents of today’s college students attended school in the ’70s. Tuition charges are rising faster than family incomes, an unsustainable trend in the long run. This holds true even when scholarships and financial aid are considered. One consequence of rising costs is that college enrollments are no longer increasing as much as before. Price-sensitive groups like low-income students and minorities are missing out. A smaller proportion of Hispanics between 18 and 24 attend college today than in 1976. The U.S. is beginning to fall below some other industrial nations in population-adjusted college attendance.