11/23/2011 02:10 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2012

Counting the Costs of College

While pundits, critics and supporters discuss and debate the effectiveness of Occupy Wall Street, and other Occupy movements around the country, everyday Americans understand their anger if not their platform. Many agree that individuals, who fought for their country, graduated from college and went to jobs everyday -- until they were laid off -- deserve better. The occupiers feel betrayed by a system that seems to be more concerned with bailing out banks than mom and pop businesses or plain old Mom and Pop. Occupiers are questioning whether the basic premise of the American dream is valid anymore. The idea and notion of sacrificing for college with the promise of better employment options is being questioned. And the questioning becomes more intense when looking at the escalation in the costs of college. According to the College Board, tuition and fees at public universities have surged almost 130 percent over the last 20 years. In 1988, the average tuition and fees for a four-year public university rang in at about $2,800, adjusted for inflation. By 2008, that number had climbed about 130 percent to roughly $6,500 a year -- not including books or room and board.

In a country whose appetite for debt has led to dire circumstances -- will student loans go the way of 0 percent down mortgages? Hardly. College hopefuls may need to add an internship, study abroad or second language proficiency to their skills and experiences to make them more marketable. But in this economy -- despite the escalating costs -- college is a necessity. According to the Current Population Survey, a monthly survey of households conducted by the Census Bureau for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate varies directly with education level. New Yorkers with less than a high school degree suffer from 12.3 percent unemployment. The unemployment rate for those with a GED/High School Diploma is 8.6 percent, a college degree 5.9 percent, and a master's degree or higher is 2.7 percent. The higher the level of educational attainment, the lower the unemployment rate.

My parents made it clear that they would sacrifice to make sure that their children had the highest chance for successful employment. I learned firsthand about the cost of college and the strain it can cause on families. Ironically, I did not learn this lesson in my own college years, but as the big sister of a college senior. My big brothers and I were close enough in age that Federal Aid, PELL grants, scholarships and help from our parents got us through. My sister was not so fortunate. My parent's small business had grown from floundering to maintaining and the financial aid office at my sister's highly esteemed university was not kind to the youngest Rice child. By the time my sister got to her senior year my parents coffers were depleted, the business had hit a rough patch, and it looked like my sister was going to have to sit out her senior year. I was made aware of all of this in a startling phone call.

I was eager to speak to my parents because I had just gotten a new job, and learned the value of unused vacation days. But my call quickly turned to a strategy session. I would visit the financial aid office and help plead my sister's case while my parents worked the phones from miles away. In the end my sister was able to walk with her class, and today she helps thousands of students as an educator. Her education was worth my parent's investment -- and a few of my vacation days.

Arva Rice is President and CEO of the New York Urban League and recently released A Parent's Guide to College available at

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