Many discussions of college being “unaffordable” focus on high and rising tuition prices, without much attention to the resources available to students to pay those prices. Plus, too many times we talk about college expense without considering the return on investment.
There is no one indicator that can show whether college is affordable. Instead, measuring affordability requires a thoughtful approach that considers:
Sticker prices and net prices (after financial aid)
Students’ earnings while in school
Expected earnings premium—how much the education will pay off in future earnings
In general individuals with a college degree earn much more than those with just a high school education. Increased educational attainment has significant benefits both for society as a whole and for the students themselves.
The funds to cover the costs of college must come from somewhere. But many people don’t want either students and families or taxpayers to have to pay. From a practical perspective, borrowing for college makes sense: people have limited resources before they get an education, but an education can boost their income over time. It’s also practical that the government should help: society benefits as a whole by having an educated populace. Government-sponsored grant aid and student loans are an investment that generally pays off. State and federal policies should address the problems of students being unable to enroll in or complete college because of financial barriers, of students enrolling in and borrowing for institutions and programs that have little chance of paying off for them, and of students who struggle with loan repayment because of unforeseen circumstances—not eliminate opportunities by doing away with all loans.