Breaking News -- College Is Unaffordable for Most

01/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

One day soon most Americans won't be able to afford college educations.

"Published college tuition and fees increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007, adjusted for inflation, while median family income rose 147 percent. Student borrowing has more than doubled in the last decade, and students from lower-income families, on average, get smaller grants from the colleges they attend than students from more affluent families."

"Historically during downturns, states make disproportionate cuts in higher education and, in return for the colleges taking them gracefully, allow them to raise tuition," Callan said. "If we handle this recession like we've handled others, we will see that this gets worse."

Loans have financed this runup in tuition, but for how much longer? They are unsecured debt. As one commentator asked recently, "How do you repossess a student loan - attach a tow hook to some delinquent student's brain as he exits the college library?"

And no shock, the burden falls disproportionately on the poor. If one year at a public university costs more than half of the income of the poorest fifth of the population, that's no meritocracy.

Kevin Carey of the think tank Education Sector pointed out in an important Washington Monthly) piece last month that "colleges could use technology to lower costs and thus student prices, but they won't until the terms of competition change. "

It's up to families, schools, and young people to change the terms of competition by earnestly seeking alternatives. And it's up to educators and lawmakers to provide those alternatives. As Carey predicts in the coming years ever-more families will turn to public colleges, improved online education, shorter degree programs, overseas education, or even pass up college altogether.

Unpleasant, but maybe necessary. Already the dropout rate is 44 percent at best.