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It is hard to define the middle class. If we ask Americans, 90 percent of them will place themselves in the middle class. If we look at middle income, the Census Bureau tells us that the average range for households in the middle group was $50,561 and the upper limit was $62,224 last year. If we don’t like those numbers we could also use another Census measure, median family income, and get different results. According to that measure, the median income for a family of four was $75,354 last year, which means that half of all four-person families made more; half made less. The Pew Research Center suggests that the middle-income range should be $37,675 to $99,350. For purposes of this post, I will use the Pew definition.

A hypothetical American middle income family of four (let’s say they earn $70,000.00 a year) with two children of college age, qualified to go to any school of their choosing, would have realized the American dream, but they would be hard-pressed to decide which school they could afford. The parents would like to help pay for college and they would also like their children to go to a good school, maybe in the Ivy League. At their hypothetical income level that would not be possible. Even an upper middle class student, who chooses a private university, graduates buried under a pile of debt.

For the 2009-2010 school year, Harvard College costs between $52,000 to $54,800 (and this figure doesn’t include books!). Unapologetic for the incredible tuition costs, Harvard had proposed (in 2007) a program of tuition assistance for the middle and upper middle class. Under Harvard’s plan, families earning between $60,000 and $120,000 would pay a small percentage of their annual income for tuition, room, and board, jumping to 10% for those earning between $120,000 and $180,000. But now that Harvard’s endowment is 70% of what it was back then, their program “has been modified” with the terms not being publicized.

The flagship state universities, which have provided an excellent education to millions of middle class students, may be too expensive for our hypothetical middle-income family. Their in-state tuition would have risen 250 percent while the kids were growing up and unless they subscribed earlier to one of the several state-tuition pre-payment schemes, this tuition would be equally unaffordable on their income. Similarly, their children would not qualify for income-based scholarships or subsidized student loans from the Federal Government. The children would have to work while in school to afford the room and board (something which is neither easy to accomplish nor anticipated by the universities who provide no assistance with the process, academically or in placement). The student assistant jobs, which the government subsidizes, are only for low-income students and there are enough of those to fill the available positions at most campuses.

Regional state-supported universities, which may allow the kids to stay home while going to school, would provide the only 4-year college alternative.  While the kids were growing up, their tuition increased by only 180 percent. The kids (with the parent’s signature) would be able to apply for loans, which would not be subsidized, with interest accruing every month for the entire four years. The new Higher Education Opportunity Act allows up to $10,000 in loan forgiveness for individuals working in areas of “national need”, such as early childhood educators, nurses, foreign language specialists, teachers working in low-income communities, public safety officers, and health care practitioners.

Only the community college provides an affordable option. Their tuition only increased by 65 percent while the children were growing up, they are located close by and they probably offer both, a full array of basic preparatory 2-year degrees and an articulation agreement which may enable a student to pursue the last two years at a state university or private university nearby, without a loss in credits.

But that’s not what our hypothetical family had in mind for their children.

They dreamed of Harvard, or Princeton or Yale or maybe UC Berkeley or UT Austin. The children can still go, but they will emerge with $50,000 to $100,000 in debt and this will burden them for the rest of their professional life, siphoning away resources they would have used to make their own way in the world and resulting in a whole generation of Americans who will not achieve as much as their parents did, regardless of the improvement in their educational attainment. This will have compounded negative consequences for the United States,which depends on increases in wealth through education and productivity to realize its continued growth. We must do something and we must do it now.

Next post: What to do about the lack of affordability of a college education

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