He breaks this down by cost (what colleges charge, nominally*) and ability to pay (what financial resources American families have).
To begin with, tuition continues to rise, despite some tuition freezes, and the steady replacement of relatively expensive tenured faculty with relatively cheap adjuncts, and popular (media-fed) dismay. “Across the country, the average price of a public four-year college in today’s dollars has increased by 13 percent since 2010, according to the College Board. That followed a 24 percent increase between 2005 and 2011.”
Connect that with the reality of American economics: “The percentage of households making more than $100,000 has been shrinking, while the proportion earning less than $35,000 has grown.”
Combined? “[T]he average sticker price of college now eats up more than 40 percent of a family’s paycheck. In 2001, it accounted for less than a quarter.”
But things are getting better, aren’t they? No:
That trend is likely to worsen for colleges and universities. “The students graduating from high school over the next decade are a less financially well-off group than the one that graduated in the last decade,” [said] Jerry Lucido, executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of California…
[A]mong those likely to have children going to college in the middle of next decade, family incomes are mostly shrinking.
(Let’s have more older folks complain about kids these days, shall we?)
Selingo concludes by turning away from families and students towards senior campus administrators, finding the latter to be resisting this new normal, this new reality.
[T]oo many higher ed leaders remain in denial about the broader economic pressures facing their institutions. Some are waiting for relief from an economy that will return to the highs of the 1990s, or at least to the days before the Great Recession. Others are hoping for expanded government student aid programs ushered in with a new administration in 2017.
Why does this matter?
[T]he most likely scenario is the one staring them in the face: a student body that is much less affluent and less prepared academically for college than the one that propelled the expansion of higher education during the past two decades.
And why does that matter? Because the majority of students and families will have a harder time being able to pay for higher education, meaning we could see today’s enrollment declines continue, or the stratification of institutions (which I’ve dubbed “Hogwarts versus community colleges”) deepen. This has powerful implications for colleges and universities, from possible finance shortfalls (and we know one way that plays out) to a two-tier semi-apartheid American academia (for which we’re seeing increasing signs).
Note, too, the part about students being less prepared. Let’s see how that plays out, hm?
If we’re not in a higher education bubble, we’re certainly in a worsening situation. So what is to be done?
*Yes, these are sticker prices, which is a weakness in the argument. If you’re new to American higher ed finance, know that most students don’t pay the nominal tuition, thanks to a panoply of aid and assistance programs. Arguably the minority who do pay full price help subsidize the rest.
I’d like to see these arguments restated against actual payment.