Why College Tuition Continues to Rise

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3Have you heard? Tuition is expensive!  College Board (the group behind high school AP courses) reports the average numbers — including tuition, fees, and room and board — for 2013-14: private ($42.4k), public in-state ($18.9k), public 2-year ($11k).

I recently stumbled upon a few articles on the topic. One blames the expansion of administration, especially top-administrator salaries. Another blames… well… the boom of administration. Full disclosure, I’m one of the staff members these folks believe there are too many of. I decided to look into this myself and see what I could find. The content below was originally an e-mail to my fiancee (sorry Kate, I just couldn’t stop). About halfway through I decided to make it into post.

Federal money goes into two main areas: loans/scholarships and research grants. It also appears to be split rather evenly between them (check it out). The research grants do nothing for the price of tuition, as they fund research. The scholarships do nothing to the price of college aside from offering a more accessible way to pay for it.

This leaves the states with the responsibility of keeping their higher ed tuition cheap. But more and more students are going to college, 15 to 20 million from 2000-2012, an increase of about 2.5% per year. And inflation rates have been about 3% per year over the past 10 years. Assuming that schools are not offering more services (thus rising costs), state funding would need to rise about 5.5% annually over that period to keep per-student cost and education quality the same — and I don’t think that’s been happening. If this report is reputable, per the bottom-right-most cell on page 27, it looks like, on average, states spent 23% less per student over the last 5 years — about a 2% decrease each year. All this while colleges are asked, and sometimes required, to provide more support.

Now consider that colleges need to compete for their students. What do students want? High rankings (prestige), sports, and fancy dining halls/gyms/facilities. Nobody is wowed by your tutoring program, your counseling office, or your student conduct office because nobody plans to use them. Strong students want to get into the highest ranked college they can for their program of interest.

So colleges (and their funding sources) need to choose: Do we want to bring in strong students OR focus on access? But hold on, what if our funding is tied to student performance? If so, why would we bring in students who we know are likely to struggle? The best way to bring up retention numbers is to bring in stronger students. How do we bring in stronger students? Sports, fancy buildings, etcetera.

The point? The current funding system makes it difficult for low and mid-level schools to exist. We want more students attending college, but don’t want to fund the support required for those less-talented students. Treating schools as businesses where the (financially) strong thrive and weak fail is a poor strategy for keeping tuition down. I don’t know if there’s a secret model that allows for an inexpensive great education.

The bigger point? For us to move forward, the states and federal government need to sort out a big question: Are we committed to a system that allows a college education for all? Without some sort of consensus, funding correlates strongly with the economy and becomes unpredictable. The strong (i.e., ivies and public flagships) weather the storm and the weak (i.e., community colleges) fail. If we’re not careful, we might end up with… uh oh… For U.S. Universities, the Rich Get Richer Faster

Of course, this is a complicated issue. The rising cost of tuition does not boil down to just one cause. Evident by my choice of profession, I believe in the value of a college education. I think the experience improves who we are as people. More than simply a set of coursework,  it requires students to make decisions about their values and start uncovering their identity. I’m worried that in the search of an efficient education system, we’re squeezing the diversity out of the post-secondary options.