“Cost” of Education

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.

9 thoughts on ““Cost” of Education”

  1. Jim S says:

    You make a very important, and easily overlooked, point regarding infrastructure, and also regarding the increased cost of teaching due to technology. You can’t really run a college today with a blackboard and student desks… and more students will demand greater resources.

    Definitely something to think about in looking at the cost of higher education. There’s still a problem as there is an ever-increasing (or at least it seems that way!) demand for college degrees in jobs, even when they’re not technically required or used.

  2. Thom says:

    You make several of the points Glenn Reynolds makes in his book, “The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself”, in which he makes that case that our current college model is in a bubble and ready to burst. Or, as he is fond of quoting, “Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.”

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    Computers certainly add cost (esp. support costs). But I don’t know what a 16mm projector used to cost, except one can probably get at least one if not more desktop computers and attached projectors for that price now. Likewise, the really advanced tech will always be expensive (and probably always increasing in price), but a lot of fairly basic lab ware and instruments are probably cheaper (a $99 Bluetooth gadget on my keyring can report CO, strong oxidizing gases, strong reducing gases, ambient temp, IR temp, barometric pressure, and more to my phone, with accuracy sufficient to be usable for many purposes); soft copy _can_ be cheaper (depending on licensing), etc.

    The non-tech-related administrative overhead needs trimming, IMO; patronage appointments should be punishable by the political equivalent of a death sentence!

    Is it really all that different to restrict entry on ability to pay (or to qualify for a scholarship) rather than ability to meet higher academic standards? (keeping in mind that there are doubtless a fair number of _privately_ funded scholarships available) Like it or not, ability to pay impacts EVERYTHING a person can do for the rest of their life, unless they are smart, determined, creative, and lucky enough (or in some cases, crooked enough) to increase their earnings and/or find another path to their desires. Might as well face that reality early and learn to pursue the opportunities that are there, rather than the ones one might wish were given out.

  4. CRM says:

    So my question is “What are the extra administration staff doing?” There has to be some reason for creating new positions. So what are they dealing with? How much of it is dealing with state or federal requirements? How much of it is internal administration? Is there an underlying reason for the bureaucratic bloat that needs to be addressed rather than just saying “too many admins”?

    This isn’t to say that I disagree with anything said above. Mr. Modesitt just got me thinking and that’s where I ended up (I was also wondering how the current ratio of admin to students compared to historic levels, but that was addressed indirectly by comparing new admin to new teachers in the next paragraph).

  5. Wine Guy says:

    Administrivia is weighing down many, many industries where the gov’t seems to have its finger in the pie. And there are plenty of people who are quite willing to work in positions where they take and give data of increasing irrelevance because it does provide a steady job.

    In my own work area, administration takes over 30% of each health care dollar spent. Some administrative oversight is needed… but 30% seems a little much. I went looking but didn’t find any similar numbers for higher education… but there are several well written articles that document the redunant and overly complex administrative layers of college administration (one for UNC is here: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/09/16/unc_berkeley_cornell_experience_show_where_administrative_cuts_can_be_made)

  6. Tim says:

    To WineGuy..

    My experience in the corporate world shows me that each piece of Government legislation will generate (by necessity) an equivalent administrative function which needs to demonstrate compliance to this legislation.

    This could be for industry ethics, employment (or appointment) practice and sadly many many other reasons. A company has to decide whether to employ people who are tasked with proving compliance or whether to save money, and so be potentially liable to a legal challenge.

    Rules on lots of things may look good in practice, but they bring with it an administrative overhead which will increase when the risk is high (esp. after a legal decision which publicly penalized any company).

    I have (fortunately and by decision) never worked in academia, and can only speak in the corporate IT world.

    Meanwhile, I am about to enjoy what I hope is an excellent Marsanne 🙂

  7. Wine Guy says:

    Had an excellent Gewurtztraminer tonight. Light, citrus, with a long spicy finish. It was great. 🙂

  8. CEC says:

    Dear Mr. Modesitt,

    While your point is still valid, the 90% figures you estimate are not. Admittedly, you may have included these as exaggeration to demonstrate the point, but I thought you might be interested in figures from some others sources that have been discussing the same point of late. Below are links to a couple of blogs that cover teh same issue and which I found of interest on the issue of rising college education costs.




    The first link relies on data from the National Center for Educational Statistics and shows the split of funds (both income and expense sources) for public and private universities in the USA.

    The two later links are to a blog by Randal Olson, a computational biologist and PhD candidate at Michigan State. Both of these links in Mr. Olson’s blog also rely upon NCES data (specifically, from the IPEDS delta cost project database).

    1. Perhaps I should have said, “in some cases.” Both the University of Oregon and the University of Virginia receive less than ten percent of their total funding from state support. From a raft of studies, it is more than clear that virtually all state universities received more than 70% and in most cases well over 80% of their funding from the states in 1960. I’ve obviously overstated the current decline based on too small a sample, but a Demos study does indicate that if current trends continue, fifty years from now no state funding will be available for higher education. That’s likely overstating the case, but in the last five years, tuition and fees at public colleges and universities have increased on average over 20%, while state funding for higher education has decreased in 49 out of the 50 states.

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