The numbers are alarming. You’ve heard the figures and read the news reports: college costs have been skyrocketing, seemingly beyond the grasp of most Americans, and the middle class in particular. According to the College Board, tuition for one year at a four-year private university increased by 5.9%, to $21,235. Although public universities still present less-expensive alternatives, the cost of tuition at these schools has increased even faster in recent years — up 7.1%, to $5,491 for the 2005—2006 academic year.
Just as record numbers of African Americans have fought their way into America’s middle class, it seems that a major resource and incentive for that struggle — access to higher education — is being pushed out of reach. Black middle-class families are finding that their incomes often disqualify them for need-based aid, yet they don’t make enough money to cover college costs out of pocket. Many parents must take on significant student loan debt on top of trying to maintain a home mortgage, reduce credit card debt, meet other family obligations, and save for their own retirements.
Is it worth it? Absolutely. To give up on the goal of a college education for ourselves and our children is simply not an option. In fact, higher education is an absolute necessity if we are going to close the wealth gap between black and white American households. It is all a matter of earning power: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over a lifetime, the difference in earning potential between a high school graduate and a college graduate is more than $1 million — talk about return on investment. The fact is, despite rising costs, paying for higher education remains one of the best investments we can make in ourselves and our children. Moreover, as African Americans, we need every dollar of that increased earning potential.
That’s why we must make a college education a non-negotiable objective for ourselves and our children. This goal must be set and planned for as early as possible — in fact, the date of conception is not too early to begin a college fund. (Starting or contributing to an education fund is also a great wedding gift idea.) On the other hand, it is never too late to make earning a degree your goal and to pursue college financing options.
Our message to young people — and particularly to young black men, who seem to be disappearing from our college campuses — must be to gain higher education by any means necessary. The ideal method is through scholarship; our kids need to understand that scholastic excellence can literally mean money in the bank in the way of four-year academic scholarships. However, if an academic scholarship is not a realistic option, then, by all means, we need to pursue all other avenues, including loans, part-time jobs, and scholarships for community service and athletics, to increase the number of African American college graduates.
And last, but certainly not least, our young people must be prepared to work their way through college if that’s what it takes. A college