The four-year university costs don't necessarily match the cost of any given student, as some started their course of studies previous to the year, possibly at lower prices, some had future years of study at higher prices, and some may have taken more than or less than four years.
Overall, though, it seems like a good way to roughly compare the costs of education with the prevalent wages at the time. Former students will, hopefully, increase their earning power over time. But as the gap grows, catching up becomes ever harder. Median incomes fall far behind.
Even men, who had an enormous advantage over women, at least since 1991, when the data was available, face a deepening gulf. In 2005, they saw the four-year cost move by their median annual income.
And for both men and women, there are as many graduates making below the median level as above. That is a lot of people who continue to fall behind.
Students have become more reliant on aid and, as part of that, loans. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the academic year 1989-1990, 50.5% of students took out loans. In the year 2011-2012, the number grew to 67.7%, or more than two-thirds. This is the latest data, but chances seem good that the percentage has grown higher.
It's not that most find themselves in Miller's boat. Only 7% have at least $100,000 in outstanding loans, according to a Pew Research analysis of Federal Reserve Board data. But the growing need for loans because many families can't make enough to get their kids through school should be disturbing, especially as the total amount of student loans continues to top $1.4 trillion, according to Federal Reserve Bank of New York figures.
Unless education costs come under strong control and wages begin to grow at a faster rate, especially after continued skyrocketing corporate profit growth, the country is building not just a blue-collar underclass, but a second tier of people with education that industry says it needs, but who have restricted financial futures.