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Shawn Vestal: College costs are still sky high, but the debt picture is improving — at least a bit

Gov. Jay Inslee and Eastern Washington University Interim President David May chat outside of EWU’s Interdisciplinary Science Center on Thursday during a tour of the Cheney campus.  (Greg Mason / The Spokesman-Review)

One of the most important trends of our college cost crisis is one of the least-known.

It’s getting better.

A little, tiny, eensy-weensy bit better.

Costs are rising slowly, not shooting through the roof. The pernicious cycle of student loans – the intergenerational screw-job we hand down to young people – has eased, with an increase in grant aid and a reduction in borrowing over the past decade. And various grant and scholarship programs that have sprung up in answer to the escalating cost of college have grown dramatically.

College is still crazy expensive. We’re still sitting atop a mountain of tuition and cost hikes that have far outpaced normal inflation over the past 40 years, and if we’ve slowed that trend line we still haven’t produced a system anyone would call affordable. We still offer some students a pathway to an education that looks more like a long con than a square deal.

But some signs point in the right direction – and they point toward the ways in which we can achieve real progress.

It would be hard, but it ain’t complicated: More public investment in funding college and financial aid, more serious attention to cost by university administrators, and less pushing of loans.

The idea that the rise in college costs has been tempered may sound impossible. After all, tuition, fees and other costs went up so dramatically for so long that it came to feel like the rising and setting of the sun.

In 1980, the average cost of attending a four-year college was $10,231 annually (adjusted for inflation), according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s tuition, fees, room and board.

In 2019-20, that was $28,775, an increase of 180%.

Lots of different stats show the same thing: costs going up so dramatically that the idea of working your way through college became a bygone possibility. Between 1977 and 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the inflation rate for college tuition was 6.28%, not quite twice the overall inflation rate.

That happened in large part because states pulled back on funding higher education as college grew more expensive – a little bit at a time, year by year by year, until the retreat was enormous. In 1988-89, for example, the state paid 82% of the cost of a Washington State University student’s education; by 2012-13 that had fallen to about 32%, according to a breakdown by the Economic Opportunity Institute.

That trend leveled off, as the state began to put the brakes on rapid tuition hikes, increase higher ed spending and invest in scholarship programs. Last academic year, the state paid just under 43% of the cost of a WSU education.

Tuition increases – which were in the double digits for years – have also slowed down. More students receive the Washington College Grant, our state’s excellent financial aid program, and the College Bound Scholarship, which provides aid for students who commit to higher education in middle school.

Meanwhile, more and more colleges are taking on the cost problem themselves, by helping cover unmet costs, and community initiatives to pay for college – such as Spokane’s fledgling LaunchNW – are being established.

And all of these trends have begun to make a dent, if a small one, in the debt cycle. The number of students graduating from Washington’s four-year universities with debt has gone down slightly – from 55% a decade ago to 45% – and the average amount of debt among student borrowers has leveled off, at around $24,000, according to state figures.

Nationally, a College Board report found that grant aid per full-time undergraduate has more than doubled in the past two decades, while the figure for federal loans per undergraduate peaked a decade ago, and has dropped from $6,160 in 2010-11 to $3,780 last academic year.

Again, costs remain very high, and the idea of a student leaving college with a bachelor’s degree and $24,000 in debt is fundamentally messed up. There’s a long way to go, if we’re really, truly trying to create an affordable, accessible system.

One thing that was clearly exposed by the debt-forgiveness debate is how many people simply do not understand this system, or its manifest unfairness to students without means.

But whatever your view of the forgiveness plan, it was a back-end solution to an ongoing problem – an attempt to catch some of the horses that got out of the barn, though the barn door is still open.

We need to close that door, if we want our colleges to truly be engines for opportunity.

A good way to do that would be to increase the Pell Grant – and I’m not talking about the $400 increase the program just received.

The Pell Grant is a federal program to help needy students pay for college; it’s a vital tool for students of color, in particular, with most Black and about half of Native American and Hispanic students relying on the program.

Many of us who came from families without the means to pay for college basically put ourselves through college on the Pell Grant. My Pell Grants in the mid-1980s at the University of Idaho covered most costs. I supplemented it a little – a scholarship or two, and part-time jobs – but it was eminently possible to attend a state school primarily on the backs of that grant.

These days, a Pell Grant won’t get you to the drop/add deadline. Congress has not funded the Pell Grant to keep up with regular inflation, let alone the hyper-inflation of college.

The National Association of Student Financial Aid notes that the maximum Pell Grant in 1975-76 covered more than three-quarters of the cost of attending a public four-year college. In 2020-21, the maximum Pell Grant of $6,495 covered 26% of that cost.

The students for whom the Pell Grant has waned are precisely those burdened most by our loan-shark system of college finance: The national cohort of Pell Grant recipients are now leaving college with $6 billion more in debt than non-Pell students, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.

Forgiving that debt is one thing. But if we really want to close that barn door, there’s no better place to start than the Pell Grant.

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