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Ensuring that all people can afford a college education is important

Ensuring that all people can afford a college education is important

By understanding that story, we better understand the importance of the student loan industry and why many believe it needs to be changed

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Hard statistics for increased college costs are difficult to determine, but the cost of tuition (after inflation) has increased about 1.5 to 2% a year for the past 70 years. The cost of attending college since World War II, in real terms, has nearly tripled. The College Board reported that in 2009, the total cost of a year at a community college was $4,552, at a public in-state university was $17,336, and at a private university was $35,374.

Somewhere between the stories of individuals burdened by student loan debt, policymakers struggling with a massive credit system, and people upset with an increased government role in the economy is the story of how college educations-long seen as a great equalizer-became financed in part through credit

It offers a degree of social justice, ensures that talented individuals can excel despite their socioeconomic background, and allows the country to remain competitive in a global economy that increasingly requires trained and talented workers. During the 20th century, and especially during the Cold War, the U.S. focused on producing an educated population in its efforts to lead the world and out-perform the Soviet Union.

Despite the social and economic importance of a university education, the U.S. federal government-unlike many other parts of the developed world-has not attempted to make university affordable by stepping in to control costs. Instead, they have focused on offering assistance to pay whatever those costs might be.

Whatever the partisan political debates swirling around FDLP, one thing is certain. As long as it remains a social policy of the federal government to increase the number of citizens with a college education, and as long as the federal government will not dictate what schools can charge-those decisions are made mostly by state governments and trustee boards-then the federal government will remain active in the business of helping students finance their education.

Before World War II, college attendance was not nearly as widespread as it is today. The number of people over the age of the age of 25 with bachelor’s degrees did not break the 5% mark until after 1950. Today, that figure stands at around 28%. The federal government played a major role in that expansion through the GI Bill, which funneled millions of federal dollars to wartime veterans for housing and education.

Iterations of the GI Bill encouraged around 2 million servicemen from World War II and the Korean War to go to college between 1945 and 1965, and a “Peacetime” GI Bill passed in 1966 helped almost 7 million Vietnam-era veterans go to college through the 1960s and 1970s.

Those veterans, of course, were overwhelmingly men. A little later, women started attending college in greater numbers. The proportion of 18-24 year old women in college doubled from 20% to 40% between 1970 and 2000. In fact, women made up a majority of college students by 1979.

Minority students also entered college in growing numbers, from just under 2 million in 1980 to over 4 million in 2000. This growth was led by Hispanic and Asian-American students, who saw their numbers on college campuses triple during those two decades. (Very recent studies on the college attendance of ethnic minorities, however, show some setbacks to these gains.)

This explosion in college attendance-along with periods of postwar inflation, increased staffing costs, state-level taxation policies, and several other factors-has contributed to increasing tuition and other costs of enrollment. The supply of seats in traditional, non-profit universities has grown, but not at the same rate as demand. This has increased tuition at those institutions and fostered the creation of new types of for-profit colleges and universities that hold courses online to help keep costs down.

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