To understand the feeling of crisis that many see in higher education right now, it’s useful to start with some figures from 40 years ago. In 1974, the median American family earned just under $13,000 a year. A new home could be had for $36,000, an average new car for $4,400. Attending a four-year private college cost around $2,000 a year: affordable, with some scrimping, to even median earners. As for public university, it was a bargain at $510 a year. To put these figures in 2015 dollars, we’re talking about median household income of $62,000, a house for $174,000 and a sticker price of $21,300 for the car, $10,300 for the private university and $2,500 for the public one.
A lot has changed since then. Median family income has fallen to about $52,000, while median home prices have increased by about two-thirds. (Car prices have remained steady.) But the real outlier is higher education. Tuition at a private university is now roughly three times as expensive as it was in 1974, costing an average of $31,000 a year; public tuition, at $9,000, has risen by nearly four times. This is a painful bill for all but the very richest. For the average American household that doesn’t receive a lot of financial aid, higher education is simply out of reach.