Elizabeth Warren went to college for $50 a semester, 'but the chances I got don't exist anymore'

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) waits to take photos with attendees after speaking at a community conversation at the East Las Vegas Community Center on July 2, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Polls taken after last week's first Democratic presidential debates show Warren gaining ground with voters.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Like many members of her generation, Elizabeth Warren earned a college degree without taking on crippling student debt.

But in a CNN op-ed published Monday, Warren zooms in on how the opportunities she was given no longer exist for students today.

"Growing up, I knew I wanted to be a public school teacher. But for that you needed a college degree — and to get a college degree you needed money my family didn't have. Still, I figured it out. I got a scholarship and headed off to George Washington University," she writes.

When she was 19, Warren dropped out of college to get married and took a job answering phones. But she still dreamed of being a teacher.

"I heard about the University of Houston. It was a public four-year college just 40 minutes away and tuition was just $50 a semester — something I could afford on a part-time waitressing salary," she writes. "I got my degree and went on to become a teacher for students with speech and learning disabilities. I got to live my dream.

"I got to become a teacher, a law school professor, a United States senator and now a candidate for president because higher education opened a million doors for me," writes Warren. "But the chances I got don't exist anymore."

In the years since Warren attended college for $50 a semester, the cost of college has skyrocketed. Today, tuition at the University of Houston can range from $5,317 to $15,027 per semester, depending on factors such as residency status and degree program — and that's without considering costs like fees, room and board.

According to Discover, the average cost of college for full-time undergraduate students has increased 143% since 1963. The financial services company estimates that during the 1963-1964 school year, the average student paid the equivalent of $9,818, in 2017 dollars, for tuition, fees, room and board. During the 2016-2017 school year, students paid approximately $23,091 to cover the same costs.

These costs have increased fastest at public four-year universities like the University of Houston. According to the College Board's 2018 Trends in College Pricing Report, from 1988 to 2018, sticker prices doubled at public two-year and private non-profit four-year schools, but tripled at public four-year schools.

And while Warren was able to pay her tuition by working part-time as a waitress, students today are unlikely to do the same. Discover estimates that in 1963, students could work a full-time minimum wage job for six months in order to cover one year of tuition, fees, room and board. In 2016, students would need to work full-time for 18 months. 

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks to supporters in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S. March 17, 2019.
REUTERS/Karen Pulfer Focht

Warren and education experts point to state cuts to education as a primary driver of the rising costs of tuition at public universities.

"Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the school year ending in 2018 was more than $7 billion below its 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation," write researchers for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Colleges responded to significant funding cuts by increasing tuition, reducing faculty, limiting course offerings and in some cases closing campuses."

In April, Warren proposed a $1.25 trillion education plan that would address rising college costs and the student debt crisis by eliminating tuition and fees at all two-year and four-year public universities, eliminating up to $50,000 in student loan debt for every borrower with a household income of less than $100,000 and expanding Pell Grant funding by $100 billion over the next 10 years.

Warren estimates the proposed policy would cost approximately $1.25 trillion over 10 years and proposes that costs be covered with revenue from her proposed Ultra-Millionaire Wealth Tax, which would tax the estimated 0.1% of Americans with over $50 million in assets.

The proposal is bold, but Warren says it's by design. "The time for half-measures is over," she writes in the CNN op-ed. "We can make big structural change and create new opportunities for all Americans."

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