A movement for affordable college is sweeping the country. Today’s college students, an older and more racially and ethnically diverse cohort than those we often picture entering the campus gates, face increasingly high barriers to paying for and attaining a college education: skyrocketing college prices, stagnant incomes, and increasingly concentrated wealth are factors driving student debt to record levels. Several bold proposals seek to minimize our risk of closing off one of the few remaining avenues to the middle class for the most diverse generation of students this country has ever seen. These proposals seek to reduce the burden of student loans, while guaranteeing that students have many more avenues to further their education and training, regardless of their family financial situation. From the passage of tuition-free college in several states to campaign proposals for debt-free college to Promise Programs offering free community college in dozens of localities, our communities and some local elected officials are beginning to tackle one of the biggest financial hurdles facing American families today. But passage of truly groundbreaking legislation at the federal level has not yet materialized, and Congress is missing an opportunity to lead on this issue.
But just how different is it? How much better of a deal did Congress receive relative to today’s students?In many cases, members of the House and Senate attended college at a time when per-student funding and grant aid were more generous, and tuition was more manageable. With debt now essentially required for a bachelor’s degree and default and delinquency rates troublingly high, the system today barely resembles the system that Congress enjoyed.
We examined the published tuition at the colleges and universities where all current members of the 115th Congress attended, both the 435 House members and 100 Senators, to answer this question. What we found was striking, but not surprising: current students face college costs that dwarf those paid by the very elected officials tasked with tackling the problem.
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On average, tuition for one year was $3,794 (an average of $8,487 in today’s dollars) for members of the House of Representatives, when they went to college. Today, students attending the same mix of colleges would see tuition bills averaging over $24,000 per year, an increase of over $15,000. Likewise, the average Senator saw a sticker price of $3,423 when they went off to school ($9,480 today), but would face a much steeper price of nearly $29,000 per year if they attended the same schools now.
In total, the published tuition at the colleges where the 435 House of Representatives went to college, at the time they attended, totaled over $1.6 million, or $3.6 million in today’s dollars, for one year of college. The same number of students attending the same schools today would pay a total of nearly $10.4 million. The 100 members of the U.S. Senate paid a total of over $342,000 in tuition for one year ($948,000 in today’s dollars). Students at those colleges today would pay nearly $2.9 million for the same year of education.
To be clear, Congress is not representative of the American population as a whole by economic status, race, or gender. On the contrary, it is richer, whiter, and more male than the country as a whole, and particularly when compared to this generation of students. Over half of the U.S. Senate, for example, attended private non-profit institutions; 3 out of 4 of today’s college students are at public colleges and universities. Further, the very fact that nearly all members of the House and Senate attended and graduated from a four-year college in the first place makes them an extremely elite slice of a country where only about 1 in 3 adults has a bachelor’s degree.
These figures also do not include the indirect costs such as room and board, books, supplies, and transportation that make up the majority of the cost of attendance facing students at public 2- and 4-year institutions. And even if tuition merely kept pace with inflation instead of soaring above it, or in other ways remained somewhat manageable, today’s working- and middle-class students would still have to contend with the rising cost of living, the stagnation in wages, and, for the 1 in 4 college students with dependent children themselves, the economic insecurity that often accompanies parenthood. In other words, one of the few remaining ladders to economic security requires far more of students today than it did in previous generations. The exploding sticker price of tuition understates the challenge for this generation, and is but one measure of how unreachable college is financially for many families.
But surely, the goal of reinstituting a system of low tuition, grant aid that covers most of the cost for low-income students, and the ability to work your way through school without having to borrow is not a pipe dream. When Congress Went to College is a yearbook that should serve as a reminder to decision-makers that the struggles facing young people today look quite a bit different than those they themselves may have faced in their younger years. With this renewed understanding, and regardless of where and when they went to college, Congress should work toward a more equitable and affordable system of higher education, and should pay forward to this generation the opportunities that were once bestowed upon them.
About the Data
The college prices in this yearbook, unless otherwise noted, include tuition figures for the year in which the member of Congress graduated from college or last attended. When information on their graduation year was unavailable, the closest year available is used. In each case, the tuition figure is never more than 2 years apart from the year in which the member left school.
Tuition figures from 1986 to the present come from the National Center for Education Statistics Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). From 1980-1985 and 1961-1965, tuition figures come from the National Center for Education Statistics’ annual College Costs: Basic Student Charges reports. For the years 1972-1978, tuition figures come from the College Board, Student Expenses at Postsecondary Institutions reports. From 1968-1971, tuition figures come from the Educational Testing Service, Student Expense Budgets of Colleges and Universities. For years or institutions that were unavailable, we gathered published tuition data from local newspaper archives, college catalogues, and university reference librarians.
Current tuition figures are for the 2016-2017 school year and were accessed from each institution’s website. Where possible, we included information on required fees at each college or university. Tuition figures from previous years are inflation-adjusted using the Consumer Price Index in the year in which Congress members graduated or left school.