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Will Tuition Hikes Affect College Applications?

The college admissions frenzy in the U.S. is at a fever pitch even though tuition and fees have skyrocketed 439 percent since 1982. The trend is expected to continue despite evidence from England that there is a limit to what parents and students will pay for a coveted sheepskin. While it's always risky to apply the lessons from abroad to these shores, a few caveats emerge.

When the House of Commons approved a bill allowing universities to increase undergraduate tuition in England to more than $14,000 a year, the effect was reflected in an overall drop of 8.7 percent in the number of applicants - the steepest decline since records began ("Teenagers turn their backs on a university education," The Independent," Jan. 31). This resulted in 43,473 fewer applications for the upcoming fall semester than there were last year.

Until now, colleges and universities in the U.S. have seemed immune to similar pushback. That may be because in 2011-12, 44 percent of all full-time undergraduates attend a four-year college whose tuition and fees come to less than $9,000 per year. Compared with what undergraduates in England will have to pay starting this fall, the price is decidedly a bargain. But for the 28 percent of students who attend a private four-year college full-time, it's a different story. Tuition and fees there are more than $36,000.

Yet the demand for admission continues to exceed the available seats at marquee-name schools. In fact, they report significant increases in the number of applications received. For example, Princeton recorded a 98 percent increase in applications over the past seven years. Regardless of what elite schools charge, those seeking admission seem willing to pay full freight.

Part of the reason is that Americans, unlike the British, have blindly bought into the myth that a college degree is indispensable for a bright future. In this regard, the Brits are far more realistic about the value of a college degree because college is merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn. It is not an absolute determinant, as John Keats presciently pointed out in The Sheepskin Psychosis (Delta, 1963).

Nevertheless, higher education is increasingly seen as an indispensable commodity. This view was on display in President Obama's State of the Union address when he proposed ranking institutions according to cost, graduation rates and future earnings. He said nothing about whether students are actually learning, instead warning that if colleges can't or won't control the soaring cost of tuition, they won't receive federal aid.

Not that pedigreed schools need it. They can do whatever they want. Their lavish endowments mean they can reduce tuition to the point that they would be less expensive than their cash-hungry public counterparts, or they can continue to ratchet up what they charge. But for other institutions whose endowments are modest, the threat of the loss of government funding, coupled with pressure from middle-class families could eventually force them to respond to demands for affordability. In England, the latter are called the "squeezed middle." They're neither able to absorb the higher cost of college like the rich nor qualify for financial aid like the poor.

Then there's the matter of student-loan debt. According to The Wall Street Journal, it now exceeds America's credit-card debt. Is a degree worth $200,000 in tuition, fees, books, room and board? In the past, the median annual earnings for holders of a bachelor's degree was $46,000, compared with $30,000 for those with a high school diploma. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that seven of ten employment sectors seeing the largest gains in the next decade will require only on-the-job training.

The cachet of a degree no doubt initially opens doors in a highly competitive jobs market, but it's what students have learned during the four years that determines if they remain employed. Based on results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measures critical thinking, complex reasoning and written expression, the answer is not much. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reported in Academically Adrift (University of Chicago Press, 2011), many students are only minimally improving their skills in these areas.

Will these and similar results serve to cool down the overall college application mania in the U.S.? I seriously doubt it. We're still laboring under the delusion that college is for everyone.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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