Believe it or not, there are prominent economists who argue that there is no affordability crisis in higher education. First, let's define "affordable." Technically, college is affordable if the money left over after you pay tuition and fees is enough to cover your other expenses.
Let's look at net price, the amount students actually pay after scholarships, grants and tuition discounts reduce the sticker price seen on the college's Web site. If you look at the net price of a year at a public, four-year college during two different periods — 1990-92 and 2003-05 — the true cost rose 37 percent. That's a monster increase, but the numbers themselves are shockingly low: a modest bump from $1,529 to $2,089 [source: Archibald].
Now let's look at the rise in household income over that same time period. A family in the 40th percentile of American households — solidly middle class — saw their incomes rise from $41,072 to $44,834, only a 9 percent increase. At first, that looks like an affordability crisis: the cost of college outpacing income 37 percent to 9 percent. But when you apply the affordability formula, you get a surprising result.
In the 1990-92 time period, a family could pay for college and have $39,543 left over. In 2003-05, they would have $42,754 left over. By the standard of affordability, the modest rise in income more than covered the seemingly dramatic increase in college costs [source: Archibald].
Fine, but on what planet is the net price of a college education only $2,000 a year? Surprisingly, the average public college for 2011-2012 had a net price of $2,490, not including room and board. (The average private school's net price was $13,000) [source: Goldstein]. Maybe college is not so out of reach, after all.