Get the checkbook out: Fall college tuition bills are coming due, and if the number behind that dollar sign seems high, well, it is.

"I'm just appalled by what I hear these kids are getting into," former Hopkins resident Thomas Brokl said of the student debt young people routinely take on to pay for college — typically around $25,000.

Brokl, who earned his degree from the University of Minnesota in the late 1960s, wrote in to Curious Minnesota, our community-driven reporting project, asking how tuition has changed at our flagship university since he was in school there, when he recalled paying about $150 a quarter.

His estimate isn't far off. A full academic year at the time would have set him back just $294, according to data from the University's Office of Institutional Research. That's about $2,300 in today's dollars after adjusting for inflation.

But the University of Minnesota has a price tag of $15,236 for this school year, putting the cost for four years north of $60,000. Put another way, today's Gopher is paying over 500% more for a bachelor's degree than Brokl did. That's for in-state undergraduate tuition and fees, and doesn't include housing or other living expenses.

Meanwhile, real wages for low and middle-class earners have increased 6% or less since 1979, according to a recent congressional research report.

The same congressional report notes, however, that those with at least a bachelor's degree have fared far better economically than those with a high school diploma -- a "premium" that could explain why demand for a college degree is higher than during Brokl's days at the U, when, nationwide, roughly half of high school graduates went on to college.

About 70% of today's Minnesota high schoolers head to a two- or four-year college right after graduation, a figure that had been inching up for years, according to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. But the number of students enrolled statewide started dipping recently, signaling a shift as the national conversation around student debt has increased.

Students and families in Minnesota use loans to cover about 20% of college costs, according to OHE data. Undergrads here took out more than $1.1 billion in student loans in 2017, down from a peak in 2011.

The debt students find themselves in after graduation is also coming down a little. Across all Minnesota institutions, the median debt load for a bachelor's degree recipient was around $25,000 in 2017, about 7% less than five years prior. Increasingly, higher debt loads belong to graduate and professional students.

Brokl, who said he was able to pay for his own education by being a golf caddie for tips in the summertime and minimum-wage custodial work during the school year with some odd jobs thrown in, wondered how many young people today work to save for such high costs.

Roughly one in three recent high school graduates enrolled in college participate in the labor force, meaning they are either employed or looking for work, according to a 2018 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about the same level seen in 1993. Other studies have put the figure closer to four-in-10.

All told, it's much harder for a student today to work their way through school and come out debt-free.

A full-time U student making $10 an hour (the current minimum wage in Minnesota is $9.86), working 50 hours each week during 12 summer weeks and 20 hours each week while in school the rest of the year would net $14,000 before taxes.

They'd be $1,200 short on the tuition bill — and still have to figure out how to pay for food and housing, too.


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