The American higher education system is the finest in the world. Our universities and colleges are unmatched, and we have more highly rated schools than all of our competitors combined. Students from across the globe continue to flock to American universities, while the competition among U.S. students for slots at our elite schools is tougher than ever.
What’s more, since end of World War II access to college has grown substantially as more and more young people pursue the dream of earning a college degree. Enrollments at U.S. colleges and universities has more than doubled since the 1980s, and the number of bachelor degrees awarded over the same time has grown by more than 75 percent.
For most graduates, a college degree remains the key to financial success. Even after the economic collapse of 2008 and the ensuing Great Recession, income and wealth for those holding a college degree has outpaced those without. Among those currently aged 25 to 32, median annual earnings for full-time working college-degree holders are $17,500 greater than for those with only high school diplomas. The earnings premium enjoyed by college graduates has risen for each successive generation since the latter half of the 20th century. By way of illustration, in 1979 the gap for that same age cohort was far smaller at $9,690.
But there are cracks in the fiscal foundations of higher education, and they are growing wider. Like a water leak in the ceiling, the problem is getting bigger and the damage is getting more expensive to fix each year we do not act.
The problem is money—specifically the ever-growing pile of cash students need to pay for college and graduate school.