We must find a way to make college education affordable

With college tuition rates increasing faster than inflation, it is no wonder that parents are pulling back on education spending, even though many private schools are offering discounts to attract students.

The unfortunate result is that fewer young people in the 25- to 34-year-old age range now hold college degrees than before the recession began. Washington is one of 15 states to experience such a decline, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Education.

If only 40.9 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds in Washington have degrees, then we are seriously behind President Barack Obama’s goal for 60 percent of Americans to have college degrees by the end of the decade. The trend also indicates we may fall further behind in the knowledge race with other countries.

Obama has said the countries that out-educate us today, will out-compete us tomorrow.

Another disturbing study by Sallie Mae, the nation’s largest student loan vendor, shows that families have spent about 5 percent less in the 2011-12 school year. That’s not surprising. With double-digit tuition hikes the norm lately, families have had to adjust by choosing less expensive schools and finding other savings.

Sallie Mae says more students are living at home and there is a noticeable shift toward two-year colleges, such as South Puget Sound Community College, where student applications have exceed capacity for several years.

The study shows that parents are now funding 37 percent of the cost of a higher education, down from 47 percent just two years ago. Students paid 30 percent, grants funded 29 percent and friends and relatives picked up the remaining 4 percent.

Most experts blame the recession, but state funding for higher education in Washington has been declining for a decade.

According to an Associated Press report, the state funded 80 percent of the cost to educate a student at one of the state’s four-year institutions. Now it covers only 30 percent. Students and their families have made up the difference through tuition increases.

Education leaders must make it their top priority to figure out how higher education can become less expensive and more accessible.

A recent experiment that seems to be getting traction is Coursera, a social entrepreneurship company that is partnering with a dozen top schools to offer courses online for free. It has already registered nearly a million students in 43 courses with its four original schools: Stanford, Princeton, Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania.

Quoted in The New York Times, Richard A. DeMillo, the director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech, said, “This is the tsunami. It’s all so new that everyone’s feeling their way around, but the potential upside for this experiment is so big that it’s hard for me to imagine any large research university that wouldn’t want to be involved.”

Whether or not DeMillo is right about free online learning, America must figure out how to deliver the education our next generations needs at a price they can afford.