The last few days, with graduations occurring somewhere practically everywhere, it’s not surprising that I’ve run across columns, letters, and blogs all decrying the increase in the cost of education. They’re all correct in the fact that the cost of education has increased faster than the rate of inflation, and almost all of them are wrong about most of the rest of it, especially their “remedies” for reducing costs.
The first thing that people tend to forget is that a huge component of the increased costs is the number of students attending college. In 1960, only 7.7% of the population had a bachelor’s degree or higher. In 2013, the percentage was 33.5%. Now, considering that the U.S. population was 180 million in 1960 and was 317 million in 2013, that means that there were only about 14 million people with an undergraduate college degree or higher in 1960, while there are 106 million today. No one seems to be considering the cost of at least tripling the infrastructure needed to educate close to a hundred million more students. And in some ways it’s worse than that, since in 1960 roughly forty percent of graduating high school seniors entered college and fewer than half graduated from college. Today, more than 66% of all high school seniors enter college, and still only about half make it through. With a still increasing population, that requires more facilities and more teachers.
Some of this problem could be solved by stricter admission standards and more rigorous grading and higher academic standards, especially on the secondary school level, both to improve preparation for college and to weed out early those students either unable or unwilling to do college-level work. Greater investment in teaching high level, non-college skills would also help, but all of these are currently politically highly unlikely.
The second factor is that in all areas, but especially in the more technical areas, the cost of educational equipment and facilities has increased. When I taught university more than twenty years ago, most faculty didn’t have computers. Now they all do, and they’re necessary, given state and federal requirements. Laboratory equipment is far more expensive, as are building and safety requirements.
Interestingly enough, while university personnel costs have increased significantly, the largest area of growth has been in administrative personnel, while cost growth in teaching faculty has been restrained by hiring far fewer tenured and tenure track faculty and ever greater numbers of part-time adjuncts, so that on average college and university faculty have gone from being more than two-thirds full-time faculty to one third full-time and two-thirds adjunct, while the numbers of high-paid administrators have continued to increase, in some instances by as much as ten times the increase in full-time faculty.
Then, as I’ve mentioned earlier in other posts, the share of who pays the overall cost of education at public universities and colleges has also shifted dramatically over the past fifty years, from the majority of such costs, often 90%, being paid by the state in the immediate post WWII era, to the present, where, on average, 90% is now paid through student tuition and fees.
Given all these factors, and the fact that public universities and colleges, who educate the vast majority of students, have essentially limited staff and faculty pay to less than the rate of inflation over the past twenty years, any significant cost cuts in teaching personnel are not possible, no matter what anyone claims, and no one seems willing to even look at administrative bloat. In addtion, because the college-age population is still increasing, the need for more facilities and equipment isn’t likely to shrink, either. The only question is whether voters and taxpayers are willing to increase the state and local governments’ share of funding higher education, so that less of a cost burden falls on the student or the student’s family, or whether the United States will, by default,effectively restrict higher education to those of greater means and to the comparative handful of less affluent students who are so brilliant that they can obtain scholarships and grants.