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A Crisis of Affordability: How Our Public Colleges Are Turning into Gated Communities for the Wealthy

Attending a four-year public college may soon be out of reach for all but the wealthiest. This is the greatest assault yet to the American dream.

Editor's Note: Just this week, on the front page of my hometown paper was the less-than-shocking news that, in our new economically wounded world, if your parents can pay the staggering tuition demanded by our top private colleges in full, you have a major leg up in the race to the college of your choice. New York Times reporter Kate Zernike quotesRobert A. Sevier, an "enrollment consultant to colleges," saying, "If you are a student of means or ability, or both, there has never been a better year." And as fans of my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers used to say in my childhood, "Wait till next year!"

In the meantime, college and university endowments are plummeting, non-tenured professors and teaching assistants are being dropped, and classes cut back on campuses nationwide. Going to college was, of course, something only a thin slice of the American elite once did. If it turns out that we are indeed in a twenty-first century version of the Great Depression, who knows what a college campus will look like, or who will be walking its paths to class, a decade from now?

As the latest entry in TomDispatch's ongoing serieson the falloutin the U.S. from the global economic meltdown, Andy Kroll, who last wrote on the ways in which new Secretary of Education Arne Duncan militarizedChicago's school system, explores higher education in the financial doldrums. Still a college student himself, in a state that's been clobbered by bad times and the collapse of the American auto industry, Kroll considers an American world in which the door to college could be slammed shut on so many. --- Tom Engelhardt

A few months ago, Bobby Stapleton, a 21-year-old student at the University of Michigan, received a phone call from his younger brother. The good news came first: a senior in high school, he, too, had been accepted by the university, the fourth sibling in his family to have the opportunity to make the move to Ann Arbor from rural Hemlock, Michigan.

Then came the bad news: his brother had no intention of telling their parents, because as Bobby put it, "he knew the money just wasn't there anymore, and that it wasn't realistic." The financial crisis had plunged the Stapleton family into severe debt. At this point, paying Michigan's modest (by college standards) $11,000 tuition for another child appeared unlikely. As his younger brother told their younger sister, Bobby recalled, "Things were just going to have to be different for the two of them."

Since that moment, Bobby and his older sisters have tirelessly searched for a way to change that fate. He has sought advice from older relatives who attended the university, met with members of its financial aid office, and explained his brother's situation to officials at the Michigan Education Trust, a statewide tuition payment program; all this in addition to a full class schedule and a dormitory dining-hall job that often keeps him at work until one or two in the morning. Still, Bobby wasn't about to give up. "I can truly say that being part of this university is one of the best things that's ever happened to me." He was, he swore, going to do everything he could to make sure that his brother and sister had that same opportunity.

Engines of Inequality

Welcome to the other crisis spreading quietly across the country: the crisis of college affordability. Talk to enough students and families on a college campus like the University of Michigan, where I'm a student, and you'll hear plenty of stories like Bobby Stapleton's -- of families scraping by in increasingly tough times as tuition bills rise, of students working second and third jobs, of newly minted graduates staggering into an ever more jobless world under the weight of tens of thousands of dollars in student-loan debt.

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