College Costs – What People Don’t Get… Again?!!!

Just a little while ago, I posted a blog on some of the aspects of rising college tuition, and in the days following I’ve observed in forum after forum the fact that almost none of the supposedly highly intelligent individuals spouting forth on the subject seem to have the slightest grasp of the underlying basis of skyrocketing tuition, and that includes our esteemed President. I’ll try to make it simple.

Tuition doesn’t reflect the total cost of education and never has.  Yet too many people still equate “the cost of college” with tuition. It’s not, although it’s becoming more so. What has happened over the past fifty years is that, except for elite private colleges and universities, and even to some degree for them, the other sources of funding for colleges and universities, the majority of which are state or local government funded, have dropped from providing as much as 80% of the cost per student to less than 10%, on average. In some states that percentage of government support is below 5%.  That means that while students at state universities paid comparatively little of the cost of their education fifty years ago, and in some cases, virtually none, today they’re paying on average more than 90%.  That’s not the only reason tuition has increased, but it’s by far the largest factor.

The growth in the number and percentage of students attending college has skyrocketed.  Over the past fifty years the student enrollment in college degree programs has gone from 4.7 million students in 1963 to 21.5 million today. In other words we have 4 ½ times as many students in college today as in 1963. In 1963, only 8% of the population had a bachelor’s degree; today it’s 31%. This has required massive expansion in facilities and faculty, at a time when traditional funding sources could not keep pace.

Educational technology has changed more in the last fifty years than in any other period in human history. In 1963, there were no personal computers, no internet, no genetic sequencing machines, no VCRs, no spectrographs, and those are just a few samples of the enormous increase in technology and equipment that is now required compared to what was needed fifty years earlier. 

Parents and students are effectively demanding more facilities, programs, and services. In 1963, air conditioning was a luxury on campuses, except at schools in the deep south.  Now it’s a necessity, as is campus-wide internet service.  Athletic programs were far more modest fifty years ago, but now athletics are an integral and costly part of the college experience. With the advent of better technology and a higher standard of living for most students, colleges are expected to keep pace in all areas.

Federal and state requirements have added cost burdens.  It’s no secret that administrative overheads at colleges have ballooned, but what has been forgotten is that significant percentage if not the majority of this administrative bloating has occurred as the result of various state and federal laws and reporting requirements. 

Cost pressures have reduced the number of experienced professors.  To deal with rising costs and loss of state and local revenue, as well as the loss of income from endowments caused by the low interest rates created by the Federal Reserve’s policy of keeping interest costs down in order to stimulate the economy, state universities are hiring a greater percentage of part-time instructors or teaching assistants, so that full-time, tenured or tenure-track professors now only comprise 30%  of the faculty at state institutions as opposed to more than 60% fifty years ago.

For all that I’ve noted here, I’d wager that you won’t see many, if any, of these points discussed in the ongoing debate over college tuition… just complaints and blame… and more insistence that universities hold tuition down when they don’t control the vast majority of reasons for the increase.

4 thoughts on “College Costs – What People Don’t Get… Again?!!!”

  1. Kanonfodder says:

    Mr. Modesitt,

    Have you read any of Nassim Taleb’s books? I’m quite enjoying Anti-Fragile currently…until your book is available to download that is.

  2. eamancz says:

    As one of those part-timers (30 years in January), I would like to point out that since most colleges hire part-timers only to teach and retain them only if they can teach, students may be better off with part-timers than with full-timers who may have been hired to do research/bring in grants. Moreover, if the college for which I work is any example, many full timers are less than thrilled to a) teach introductory level courses or b)teach a heavy schedule which cuts significantly into the time they can spend doing research or getting grants (because things like pay raises and promotions are based on those activities rather than teaching). And the alternative I am seeing discussed in a number of educational publications is even worse to my mind – replacing us with “canned” on-line courses (MOOCs).

  3. Wine Guy says:

    I do not dispute the commentary by LEM at all. I would like to make a few observations:

    – public (as well as private) universities are quite experienced at harvesting government money at a ferocious rate.
    – many schools keep their ‘tuition fees’ down by adding in mandatory fees later on (student activities fee, computer lab fee, etc.). Colleges are worse than local/state governments about nickel and diming. It would be more honest by just adding these into tuition.
    – the number of administrators at a major university rivals that of health care, with more and more chiefs looking over the shoulders of a rapidly declining number of braves.

  4. Much of that is true, but the fees added by my wife’s university [at least in the music area] go 100% to pay for adjunct instructors in order to be able to teach the number of students in the program because the university and the legislature won’t fund more positions, either full-time or part-time, out of basic departmental salaries,even while insisting on increasing enrollment, and no one in her department gets time for “research” or performing. Except for the department chair, all teach full loads and often more.

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