The college affordability crisis looms large for working and middle class Americans. Parents and students are reeling from record levels of student loan debt and ever-increasing tuition hikes. Total student loan debt is now a record $1.26 trillion and the typical 2016 college graduate has $37,172 in student loan debt, up six percent from last year.
The costs of postsecondary education are now higher in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Despite the buildup of student debt, schools continue to jack up prices in the form of higher tuition and fees. The cumulative change in tuition and fees at all types of higher education institutions has grown (in constant dollars) by 129 percent from 1981 to 2014. Median family income, of course, has not kept pace, growing only 11 percent over the same period. In 1981, annual college tuition and fees represented 18 percent of median family income. Now they account for 37 percent.
For a growing number of students the cost of college has become so bad that they sometimes are forced to choose between skipping meals and paying for tuition, books, and dorm rooms. According to a study by Sara Goldrick-Rab of 4,000 community college students, slightly more than half of respondents indicated they experienced marginal to very low food security. If college costs continue to rise at their current pace, Congress may have to consider a free college lunch program for undergraduates.