ELI5: The millennial generation appears to be so much poorer than those of their parents. For most, ever owning a house seems unlikely, and even car ownership is much less common. What exactly happened to cause this?

That's complicated, but I'm an econ person and covered higher education finance as my primary beat as a reporter so I'll tackle that one.

  1. Education, like healthcare, is a labor-intensive good. When inflation is measured, what the BLS does is take a "basket" of things that typically buy (cars, toothpaste, beer) and track how much it costs over time. Physical items that can be improved by technology, higher manufacturing productivity and cheaper overseas labor actually get a lot cheaper over time in comparison to the overall bundle. Think of your TV and how much better/cheaper than 30 years ago it is, but also common items like clothing are tons cheaper relative to the average wage than they were 30 years ago (thanks to mechanization and increased globalization).

Education and healthcare are services that must be delivered locally and they're not like that -- if you want a teacher for every 25 kindergarteners, you still have to pay a person to do that. There is very little productivity gain versus 30 years ago. So it's not that underlying costs are going up by that much, it's that they're going up by a lot in comparison to the overall bundle that is used to calculate inflation, which is benefiting from productivity gains that don't affect labor-intensive goods to the same degree. People complain left and right about the cost of healthcare and education, but there are structural reasons why these things cost what they do -- you have to employ teachers, professors, doctors, nurses. Sure, there are alternatives like call-center physicians and online education, but the quality of service is a lot poorer.

  1. The state share of funding for higher education has dropped massively since the 1970s. See, there used to be a policy imperative in this country to provide access to higher education. States kept tuition low. The maximum Pell Grant would actually pay 85% of tuition at a four-year college (now it's less than half). ACSFA is a good nonpartisan source for more information on this topic.

There are still a few states, like California, which are trying hard to keep this going -- I took some community college classes there a few years ago and it was still < $50/credit hour, and Cal Grants are one of the few need-based grant programs left at the state level that actually cover tuition for poor students at state universities.

Unfortunately, Georgia came up with a scheme called the "HOPE Scholarship" in the early 90s that has been copied in a lot of states, and has badly misdirected state funds that used to be used to make college accessible to needy students and subsidize tuition for everyone. It's basically a grant to middle-class students to encourage them to attend in-state schools, so it's obviously very popular with middle-class voters and makes politicians and corporations happy (it has a secondary "anti-brain-drain" goal ... think of the smart Georgia kid who is now stuck at GIT instead of MIT). The problem is that giving large grants to every high school student with a B average is a huge waste -- you're subsidizing people who would have gone to college anyway! And just generally spending a lot of money for very little effect, and doing nothing to address the inequity of the K-12 system we have. 1/5 of the same money applied to need-based aid would be a lot more efficient and effective. The problem now is that once enacted, rolling back a program like that, which is basically a sop to the middle class, is politically impossible. It would take huge political courage to change, and state lawmakers aren't exactly the country's leading policy thinkers.

TL;DR Education is labor-intensive so the rise in costs isn't just a scam by colleges. Meanwhile most states have slowly abandoned the commitment they had to making college affordable from 1945-1975. For sure it is not just millennials being cranky (and I am not a millenial ... god you people are a bunch of ignorant narcissists though!).

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