Tuition Ignition postscript: Looking back at a week of stories

Tuition Ignition: A week-long series looking at the soaring cost of college at public and private institutions

If you've read this week's Tuition Ignition series closely, you may have wondered why we didn't include community colleges or for-profit private institutions, such as University of Phoenix and DeVry University, in our reporting.

Both categories are important to understanding higher education in America. The short answer as to why we left them out is that we wanted to focus on tuition and aid among "traditional" students pursuing standard four-year bachelor's degrees. The vast majority of students working toward those degrees are enrolled at public and private non-profit institutions.

By contrast, just 10% of the nation's college students are enrolled at private for-profit schools. Community college students make up a much larger share, about a third of all higher education students.
But community colleges also serve much more diverse student bodies: Some go to start their college careers, taking general education classes before transferring to a four-year institution. Some go for one or two classes, or for remedial programs.

But many others enroll in tailored vocational or technical programs where the goal isn't necessarily to get a degree, but to get a well-paying job in healthcare, the construction trades or other industries.

That's a pretty different mission, and makes drawing valid comparisons to four-year schools more difficult. Students at community colleges amass much less student loan debt, but are enrolled for half as long, and sometimes only a semester or two.

Private for-profit universities have gained more than their share of headlines in recent years. Their names are ubiquitous on highway billboards and banners on job search websites: the University of Phoenix, Argosy University, DeVry University, the Apollo Group and others have, with the help of Wall Street investors, expanded their campuses and offerings in recent years.

At many for-profit universities, the emphasis is on "non-traditional" students: adults looking to complete a degree, earn a graduate degree or gain new skills in a specialized field, not necessarily get a first-time bachelor's degree.

PBS' Frontline recently aired a superb episode on private universities that is instructive viewing for anyone interested in the industry. Private for-profit universities are also sucking huge amounts of money out of the nation's Pell Grant funds. Last year, all but five of the 20 biggest recipients of Pell Grants were for-profit schools. They collected a combined $2 billion in Pell Grant funds from the federal government. Money well spent? Maybe not, since a stunning 96% of graduates from for-profit programs also end up with student loans they have to pay off.

Leaving these two sectors out was deliberate – not because they aren't significant parts of our nation's higher education system, but because including them would have introduced a whole slew of tangential, complex issues in a series that we wanted to keep as streamlined as possible.

To review the week of headline stories for the Tuition Ignition stories, click on the links below:


Monday, May 17: Soaring costs, shrinking aid and who's to blame. A look at why the gap between federal grants and college tuition has grown enormously in the last 30 years, with high-cost loans filling that space and forcing graduates to carry hefty debts for a decade or more after they graduate.

Tuesday, May 18: Why state school tuition continues to soar. Many state schools have hiked tuition and fees to make up for once-reliable state funding that in some cases has been cut dramatically in recent years.

Wednesday, May 19: Why student loan debt is soaring into the five and six figures. Tuition alone at a growing number of private institutions now tops $40,000 per year; add in room, board and other expenses and that number is close to or above $50,000.

Thursday, May 20: The aid gap. In the last 15 years, Pell grants have barely increased as other scholarships and grants have become more elusive and competitive, covering a smaller share of tuition.

Thursday, May 20: Our final grades. Who gets the blame for soaring tuition, and who deserves credit for efforts, however small, to help students out?

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