The math is clear: College pays off.
Among Americans ages 25 to 32, college graduates earned $17,500 more than high school graduates in 2012 — the largest pay differential ever, according to Pew Research. When it comes to earnings, "the picture is consistently bleaker for less-educated workers," the Pew study concluded.
But even as the value of a college diploma has been rising, the cost of tuition has been increasing even faster — far beyond the reach of most young people. The cost of four years of tuition, room, board, books and fees can stretch up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the pace of increase has accelerated throughout the recession and slow recovery.
The College Board says the average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities increased by 27 percent beyond the rate of inflation over the five years from the 2008-09 academic year to 2013-14. After adjusting for inflation, the cost of tuition more than tripled between 1973 and 2013.
That reality has been forcing more and more students to take on staggering debts. Among all students who graduated from four-year colleges in 2012, seven in 10 left with debt.
And that debt load is heavy — an average of nearly $30,000 each, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. Just 20 years ago, fewer than half of college students graduated with debt, and the amount was less than $10,000 on average.
Such statistics can be especially daunting for lower-income families.
"Unfortunately, there are still a lot of young people all across the country who say the cost of college is holding them back," President Obama said earlier this month at Coral Reef Senior High School in Miami.
He was there to tout an initiative to help students complete their applications for federal student aid, such as Pell grants and loans. Obama also wanted to call attention to his request to have Congress spend $100 million to support strategies for making college more affordable.
David Scherker, one of the students at Coral Reef High, said his parents have been scrimping for years to make sure he can get to college. "We don't splurge a lot," he said. And he is hoping to get as much aid as possible.
But not all his classmates have had such parental support and are less confident about being able to afford college. "Some of them are so stressed out about it that they don't want to talk about it," he said. Instead of their senior year being full of high hopes, "it's just a stressful time for everyone," he said.
Does college really need to be so expensive? What can families do in the face of such staggering costs?
NPR is launching a series of stories and conversations about college affordability. On two shows, Morning Edition and Tell Me More, hosts and guests will consider how college became so expensive, and how average people can pay for higher education.
NPR reporters will meet with families facing an onslaught of sophisticated direct marketing and data mining by schools, wading through the financial-aid process, trying to decipher often-misleading letters about scholarships and finally deciding whether a student's dream school is affordable.
These are some of the topics to be explored in coming weeks:
- Colleges say applicants must show "demonstrated need" to get financial aid. But some analysts say the formula for determining what a family can afford for college is arcane and unrealistic, leaving many with little help.
- In the years after World War II, the goal of going to college was within reach for many lower and middle-class students. But in recent years, cost increases have been far exceeding the pace of inflation. What policy shifts led to the affordability crisis?
- Black and Hispanic students are dramatically underrepresented in college programs focused on physics or astronomy. City University of New York is trying to change that with special help for minorities.
- Private high-school students are roughly nine times more likely to go to elite universities, such as Yale or Princeton, than public school students. What are the implications for income inequality as those students move into the workforce?