The existence of public colleges and universities is the way the American working-class has traditionally been able to achieve a higher education and broaden their individual and social worlds. It started with the land-grant universities and then expanded, especially in the 1960s, with enormous increases in facilities, professors, and public financing. The children of U.S. workers were thus able to enroll in state institutions that, in many cases, provided them a high-quality, affordable education.
As we all know (and, if we didn’t, Bernie Sanders has been quick to remind us), that is no longer the case. The decrease in state funding for public colleges and universities, which has led them to increase tuition and fees and to chase out-of-state (and, increasingly, out-of-country) students, together with stagnant incomes for the majority of the population, has made public education less and less affordable for many workers and their children. The result is that many students have been forced to choose lower-quality schools (including for-profit colleges and universities), extend their time in school (because they have to hold one or more jobs while going to school), and take on more and more debt (both student debt, to finance their education, and consumer debt, to make other purchases).
In creating the chart above, I calculated the cost of public four-year colleges and universities (as reported by the College Board) as a percentage of the average income of the bottom 90 percent of Americans (from the World Wealth and Income Database). Thus, for example, in 1975-76, annual tuition and fees amounted to about 7 percent of 90-percent incomes; adding room and board increased that figure to 24 percent. Now, tuition and fees alone are 28 percent and the total cost (including room and board) is up to 59 percent.
In other words, right now, it costs the American working-class almost 60 percent of one year’s income to pay for one of their children to attend one year in a public four-year college or university.
What’s the American working-class to do? The same as in many other rich countries: demand free higher education for all high-school graduates who want to attend an in-state public college or university (and, while they’re at it, forgiveness for the student debts they’ve been forced to take on in order to attend increasingly out-of-reach public colleges and universities).