Some good thoughts here. I’ll offer a couple of my own, FWIW.
One, charts and graphs aggregating college costs are problematic in some ways, as the sheer range of college options is vastly greater today than it was in prior decades, and the costs run the entire gamut from pretty affordable to astronomical. While the charts and graphs probably show an accurate overall picture, it’s not necessarily relevant to the choices any individual or their family might make.
Two, a huge factor in college costs is the way Americans conceive of college in the first place. Again, this runs the gamut from “college is just job training” to “it’s a four year experience of growth and discovery” to “get the kid out of the house and pay someone else to worry about him.” If you just want training, it isn’t expensive, really. If you want a solid education of true college quality as we traditionally frame it, it still isn’t hyper-expensive. It’s when you want either of those plus four (or more) years of living in a youth-oriented, custom-built environment tailored to cater to the desires of 18-22 year olds–and usually surrounded by a supporting ecosystem tailored to all of those things colleges won’t formally support but rely on, that is, sex and drugs and rock and roll–that things get really costly. For many people, though, “college” isn’t “college” without all the trimmings, and those cost.
Three, comparing costs to test scores is also problematic. Just as those aggregated costs can be misleading, in the particulars, test scores are really questionable metrics. Which tests? What is there relationship to other metrics, like jobs, income, etc.? Admittedly, I’m not in K-12 where tests are sort of king, but from the college perspective I’m pretty skeptical of most test systems.
Four, class. Not the class room, but social and economic class. I like the thought exercises in this thread on how to fix things, but consider what might happen if, say, we did roll back funding so as to force a market correction. Rich people would, well, still go to colleges, in droves. The expensive, elite schools would have no real incentive to roll back costs; most have huge endowments, and are turning away people willing to pay full freight. The people most likely to be hurt might well turn out to be the people being frozen out by costs today. Admittedly, the loan situation is dreadful, and I agree 100% that colleges are in general mendacious in their treatment of loans as the same as disposable income for their students. Add to that the wretched labor model that makes higher education in the US sustainable at all–the way schools churn out people with advanced degrees and then use the surplus to drive down wages and benefits for adjuncts, who then sustain the school–and there’s plenty of ick to go around.
Five, and finally, my own personal feeling is that there is zero institutional interest in fixing this problem. Colleges, no matter how well intentioned, are prisoners of their labor model, their boards of trustees, and the sheer inertia of maintaining cash flow and their own existence. The political leadership, on the other hand, is in the pockets of big business in general, which has no interest whatsoever in actually educating people. Training them, sure, but actually building a system of true education where people learn to think? Preposterous. They might actually figure out the emperor is buck naked, and then here would we get our cogs and drones? This is one reason you constantly see paeans to STEM stuff. What they really mean is “technically skilled workers who can do semi-complex tasks,” not “people who are really pushing the limits of scientific thinking.” No, they want obedient specialists to make patents for them, not world-changers. And it really explains why they hate the liberal arts. Despite a fair number of studies showing that graduates in the humanities end up doing quite well, financially, and even some tech and business leaders pointing out that the most successful among them have liberal arts backgrounds, the drumbeat of commentary is pretty much totally focused on painting the humanities as a dead end. And when any discussion of college funding reform comes up, you get folks saying why should we do X or Y or Z just to allow someone to waste money on Mayan poetry? What they really mean is, “we sure as hell don’t want to fund people learning how to think, or ask questions, as it might affect our phony baloney jobs!”