Nowadays, entering the real world with only a high school diploma is like going into battle armed with only a squirt gun. Over the last thirty years, earnings for workers with high school diplomas have taken a beating. By 1994, males 25 to 34 without college degrees were earning roughly the same amount as their similarly educated grandfathers earned in 1949.(2) High school students saw the writing on the wall and more began enrolling in college. In 1975, just over half of all high school graduates continued their education after high school. Today, nearly three quarters of high school graduates enroll in some type of college after high school.(3) But those numbers are deceptive. Although young adults may be swarming into college, most are failing to complete their studies. Less than a third of young adults aged 25 to 29 had a bachelor's degree or higher in 2003 -- a percentage that hasn't kept pace with enrollments.(4) The kind of family someone comes from and the amount of money they can pony up exert a heavy influence on whether a student ends up at a two-year or four-year college and whether or not they will complete their degree. Which means that today's bachelor's degree holders are still a rather select group.
During the same time that a B.A. has become the new entry pass to the middle class, tuitions have soared and our federal financial aid system has fossilized. Of the $70 billion a year the federal government spends on student aid, the vast majority is loan-based aid, and in any case it is nowhere near generous enough to help many students pay for college. As a result, nearly two thirds of students graduate with student loan debt, and low-income students are most likely to be borrowing.(5) As this Red Sea of debt has risen, policymakers have dithered. Every four years or so, Congress votes on whether to make changes to the maximum amount a student can borrow or receive in grants to pay for college. During the 1980s and 1990s, grants to low-income students were bumped up a tad and student loans were made available to families regardless of their income. And yet, the amount of money a student can borrow is still the same as it was in 1992. The maximum Pell Grant award, the nation's premier program for helping poor kids pay for college, covers about one third of the costs of a four-year college today. It covered nearly three quarters in the 1970s.(6) But only 22 percent of Pell Grant recipients get the maximum award.(7)--the average award in 2003 was $2,421, which covered only a quarter of the costs of a four-year public college.8 How is it possible that as college has become more important, access to college has become more out of reach?
Perhaps our members of Congress, the majority of whom are Baby Boomers or older, don't remember just how good their generation had it when it came to being able to afford college. For any Baby Boomers reading this book, I'm about to offer you a trip down memory lane. And for young adults, I'm about to show just how badly we've been short-changed.
The Glory Days of Financial Aid