The Lumina Foundation, a private organization that works to expand access to higher education, released the benchmark to relate real college costs to what people are able to pay.
It’s based around a rule of ten: Families save 10 percent of their discretionary income for 10 years prior to college and students work 10 hours a week during college.
“There have been a lot of proposals lately that aim to make college more affordable, but they aren’t clear on exactly what ‘affordable’ means,” said Zakiya Smith, strategic director for Lumina.
But Eric Johnson, spokesman for the UNC Office of Student Aid, said UNC is already enormously affordable compared to similar institutions.
“UNC student debt has been largely static for ten years, and UNC students borrow at a rate of 40 percent compared to 70 percent nationally,” he said.
Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University who once received a grant from Lumina, said the benchmark is arbitrary and he disagrees with their goals as an institution.
According to the Lumina website, its aim is to increase “the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60 percent by 2025.”
“Given the state of the labor markets, their agenda is inappropriate,” Vedder said.
He said more college degrees are unnecessary as many college graduates work jobs historically reserved for high school graduates.
Smith said Lumina’s benchmark will not itself make college more affordable or solve the problems facing higher education.
“The benchmark is our attempt to put a stake in the ground for what families and students should have to contribute to their education,” she said.
Because the benchmark does not prescribe policy, Smith said Lumina must now engage policymakers to make education more accessible.
“Possible steps forward could include free community college, ‘promise programs’ and increasing state aid,” she said.
Vedder said these plans are part of a pattern that so far has done little to reduce real costs to students.
“When states increase aid to public schools, the universities rarely put that money into lowering tuition,” he said.
He said the right path is to downsize rather than expand higher education.
“Not everyone needs to go to college,” Vedder said. “Give everyone a chance at community college, but students who are likely to fail at four-year universities would be better off not going to one.”
But Johnson said starting this conversation is important.
“Lumina gets people to look more closely at what college means,” Johnson said. “The status of college as a good has changed but we aren’t changing the conversation.”