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College-Attainment Levels Rising Slowly, Data Show

By guest blogger Nora Fleming

While college-completion rates are increasing, the rising cost of tuition is pushing higher education out of reach for increasing numbers of families, according to statements Education Secretary Arne Duncan is expected to make at a National Governor's Association conference in Williamsburg, Va., tomorrow.

Duncan will speak to the release of new data that show the college-attainment levels state by state for 25 to 34 year olds based on U.S. Census Bureau data. While the attainment levels have risen half a percentage point, the U.S. still has a ways to go, the secretary says, as it now ranks 16th in the percentage of college graduates. The administration said it hopes to increase the number of degree-holders to 60 percent within a decade.

"To meet the president's goal for America to become No. 1 in the world for college graduates, all of us—the federal government, states, and institutions—must work together," Duncan is expected to say on Friday. "The federal government has done a tremendous amount to increase the amount of aid available to students. But we need states and institutions to meet us halfway by doing more to keep college costs down."

The administration reports that 40 states have cut funding for higher education in the past year, while tuition has increased 15 percent, on average. Even though more Pell Grant funding is available for students, and interest rates on students loans have been maintained, these increasing tuition costs make college affordability challenging, officials say.

Recent reports have spelled out the financial difficulties facing students and higher education institutions.

According to the College Board's "Trends in College Pricing" report from 2011, reductions in state funding to higher education institutions (largely due to tight budgets post-2008 recession) have caused institutions to continue to raise their tuition rates, while enrollment has continued to increase. Public institutions in particular have seen the most dramatic increases in college prices, the College Board reported, with the average increase in tuition at public four-year institutions higher than increases at private institutions for the fifth year in a row.

"College prices continue to rise more rapidly than the amount institutions spend to educate students, with tuition carrying a growing share of the financing of postsecondary education at a time when students and families are ill-equipped to manage additional expenses," the report states, adding that while federal funding and increases in student-loan aid helped buffer state funding cuts, in the long run, this support will not be enough to make college more accessible.

"Concerns over the deficit make it difficult to be optimistic about the federal government continuing to increase its contribution to college financing. New solutions will be required if the U.S. is to have any measurable success in increasing its overall educational attainment and reversing the decline in the economic opportunities available to the least advantaged members of society," the report reads.

The College Board's 2010 Education Pays report also found that schooling beyond high school has continued to increase income level and employment opportunities over time. In 2008, the median earnings for women aged 25 to 34 that had at least a bachelor's degree were 79 percent higher than those with just a high school diploma. For men, the percentage was 74, up from 60 percent and 54 percent the decade before.

Of course, not all higher education institutions are on equal financial footing.

The Delta Cost Project's "Trends in College Spending" report covering 1999-2009 found that while private higher education institutions were increasing spending practices, on average, that was not the case at all institutions. The gap between "rich" and "poor" institutions in spending was larger than ever before, they reported, and, most U.S. students actually attend schools that only "spend on average around $10,000 per student per year, no more than [is] spent for elementary and secondary education."

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