The Costs of Higher Education

The President has decided that now is the time to confront the growing cost of higher education.  As the NYT notes:

President Obama is proposing a financial aid overhaul that for the first time would tie colleges’ eligibility for campus-based aid programs — Perkins loans, work-study jobs and supplemental grants for low-income students — to the institutions’ success in improving affordability and value for students, administration officials said.

As he proclaimed in the SOTU:

“Let me put colleges and universities on notice:  If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.”

As the NYT story correctly notes, for public institutions, rising tuition is partially a product of state budgetary decisions in hard times. If the states reduce levels of support, tuition must increase.

Certainly, private institutions are facing a different set of issues. The financial crisis racked a lot of endowments and the impact is still being felt because of spending rules (e.g., many institutions have rules that limit the draw on the endowment to 5 percent of the twelve quarter moving average). Moreover, most private institutions cannot control financial aid (if admissions are partially or wholly need blind) and health care costs. All of this places pressure on tuitions.

But I wonder: How much stock one can place on the story of the increasing costs of higher education given the massive changes that have occurred in the underlying services? Let me illustrate with a brief comparison.

I fondly remember my days as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison some three decades ago. During my time at Madison, I never saw an advisor. The course catalog would be delivered in bulk to Memorial Union (and other locations) and the university assumed that their adult students could make their own decisions about courses, the coherence of their schedules, and the number of courses they wanted to take in any given semester (if it took you longer to graduate than the standard four years, it was your problem). The one year I lived in university housing (a cooperative), I slept in a bunk bed in a cement block room with one window.  The food was rather bland—lots of starch, little in the way of protein—and you had your choice of milk or water (things were a little better in the dorms, but not much). Since no one owned televisions, if you wanted to watch TV you went to a commons area or hit a bar. If you wanted to exercise, you went to a gym that was equipped with an assortment of old steel benches, iron weights, punching bags, and stationary bikes.

The total cost of one year’s education (combining tuition, books, room and board): $5500 in 2011 dollars.

As an academic and a parent who has put two sons through college, I find the contrast between my college experience and the experience of today’s students to be rather striking.

Today, the culture of helicopter parenting has infested the academy. Students are required to meet with their advisors several times a year to receive approval for every course (I love putting that PhD to good work when I need to approve a decision to add or drop a half-credit strength training class).  There appear to be deans, offices, and programs covering every conceivable aspect of a student’s life. We have simply discarded the assumption that students are adults and thus capable of self-governance.  Even in public universities (both of my sons attended them), the quality of the housing has improved dramatically. Everyone seems to have a television and a personal computer, and thus cable and wireless are required amenities. Students dine in what appear to be food courts, making daily decisions about whether to have sushi, vegan, or some quasi-ethnic food, washed down with bottled water, a designer tea, or a latte (to my knowledge, these are among the few decisions that do not require a meeting with an advisor). The fitness centers are nothing short of lavish, with rows of shining weights, ellipticals, stationary bikes, rowing machines, and ceiling mounted television sets tuned to everything from VH-1 to ESPN.  When students select a college, the tour guides devote the lion’s share of their time to exploring the co-curriculum and amenities for a simple reason: This is what attracts students and their parents.

In short, the college experience today is far different than in was a generation ago. Whether it is a net improvement depends on your perspective, I suppose (I am skeptical, and tend to embrace the more Spartan days of the past when students were treated like adults instead of infantilized and resources were lavished on the library instead of the co-curriculum).

It is difficult, in this context, to make sense of the arguments regarding the escalating costs of a higher education. The services that constitute higher education today have little in common with what constituted higher education a generation ago (not to mention several generations ago, when things were even more monastic).

I would write more, but this is the second day of add-drop, and there are undoubtedly some schedule adjustments that demand my immediate attention.

11 thoughts on “The Costs of Higher Education

    1. Indeed. Why is that? One possibility: changes in the economy. Another possibility: students are gravitating toward majors in what one of my friends calls “departments of fashionable studies,” graduating with expertise in lit-crit and the rejection of meta-narrartives. A third possibility: so many (too many?) people are going to college and with the extraordinary level of grade inflation a degree no longer signals what it once did.

      I would guess some of the difficulties are episodic (possibility 1). But I might place more emphasis on the second two. I have yet to hear of students with degrees in engineering, chemistry, or computer science having significant problems in the job market. Indeed, there is some evidence of shortages in these fields.

      1. I think your favoritism of sciences here needs some sort of more thorough defense. Is someone with a superficial knowledge of chemistry necessarily any more employable than someone with a superficial knowledge of communication? I doubt it. Perhaps BSc student do have a better employment statistic. Is this because the science aspect of their education is inherently more useful, or is it because they tend to be the kinds of individuals who will do things because they are told these sorts of things are useful, an attitude more in line with capitalist values and production (contrast that with the over-critical and self-destructive attitude pervasive within the liberal arts)? In my mind there are simply too many variables at play. I study literature and have out-interviewed and outperformed individuals with science degrees in the job market consistently. This is not because I know more about chemistry than they did; rather, it is because a chem degree does not make you a scientist, and in the end they still had to apply for the same low-level admin, communications, sales and marketing jobs that your liberal art student applies for. These things are completely dependent upon the individual.

        This reflects the broader question of academia’s contribution to society: Does a degree intrinsically makes an individual more employable, or are the individuals who get degrees simply people who tend to do what society thinks is best, who come from ‘functional’ family backgrounds, understand the nature of society, etc, and are therefore likely to succeed with or without the institution’s stamp of approval? The degree, in my mind, may simply be an advertisement, a perpetuating agent of our cultural habitus.

  1. I agree with this post entirely. The American undergraduate education system is a messy intersection of competing interests and misinformation which have resulted in near-total dysfunction. Now, at the research levels they are still near-utopian, but I sometimes wonder at whose expense at what opportunity cost?

    This idea that you are entitled to a job after spending four of your most productive years in an essential massive daycare system is laughable. The university system was designed to provide rigorous (and very general!) education for the future ‘movers and shakers’ of aristocratic and upper-bourgeois society. Humboldt tried to develop a ‘system’ (as Prussian bureaucrats were prone to construct) in which this flexible and dynamic bourgeois worldview would be extended to the broader public. Of course, he did this because a King forced him to. The very nature of a dynamic, flexible system arbitrated over by a very hierarchical and strict bureaucracy is contradictory.

    The contemporary institution is based on this story whereby certain ‘majors’ and ‘certifications’ are attractively signalling employers to hire anyone who is willing to perform the hoop-jumping. The most hilariously ironic consequence of this is the emergence of state-subsidized professional schools, producing lawyers and BComs/MBAs (some of whom) are smart enough after their superficial exposure to basic economic principles to move businesses and create jobs overseas. Not that there is anything wrong with overseas job and wealth creation — the real question is why should law firms or multinational corporations have the education of their employees payed for by the state? Students seeking nothing more than a comfy position at a respectable firm after school are right to complain about program requirements — these are modes of government-subsidized bureaucratic expansion based on misinformation. You will never ‘use’ that class on Bronte or that zoology elective. This is the university taking advantage of your ignorance (and that of the government and/or your parents) in order that Dr. X can continue studying whatever obscure fetish in a luxury setting and a suit-jacket, or that Dean so-and-so can enjoy a quarter-million dollar salary attending faculty brunches and handing out signatured pieces of certificate paper. Of course, the Federal government will always make taxpayers give more to these institutions because no one wants to demonize spending on ‘education’.

    To top things off you have the coddling outlined above by Dr. Eisner. Students live isolated from the society they imagine themselves one day participating in, taking out mountains of debt to pay for the resort they’ll be occupying for what possibly could have been their most energetic and productive years, regardless of the broader social demand for the particular branch of knowledge they pursue. ‘Mentoring’ and ‘advising’ sessions are very often instrumentalized by the administration into sales pitch periods for individual faculties, which obtain more funding the more numbers they can add up and then write a silly narrative explanation for. This is not only sinister but can make student suspicious and cynical towards more authentic social relationships with their teachers. The most applicable skills students often acquire are to do with student government and bureaucratic navigation, which they may ultimately serve to perpetuate later in mainstream society.

    I understand that there are some benefits to the current system, and that I’ve been rather polemic. I just find people too naive and quick to defend and romanticize it, an attitude which results in complacency and needless bureaucratic expansion. There simply must be better ways of educating the people of our age.

  2. “I think your favoritism of sciences here needs some sort of more thorough defense.” I didn’t mean to express such favoritism. My comment was simply a response to the claim that a degree no longer gets you a job. There is plenty of empirical evidence that job market success–and compensation levels–varies by major. Some majors have little difficulty finding jobs; others find it impossible. If you major in mechanical engineering your job prospects are different than if you get a degree in puppeteering, to cite a recent example from OWS.

    Having taught scientists and philosophers, I find the latter to be more capable of analytical thinking. Yet, the former will have a far easier time on the market and for them, like it or not, a degree does usually result in a job.

    1. Perhaps — perhaps in the case of puppeteering and engineering there is some intrinsic practicality lacking in the former. However, I would argue that even in the case of ‘puppeteering’ (which I have never actually heard of in any case other than the one you referenced, rendering it a somewhat extremist and suspect instance), there is little to me that suggests it would be much less practical than studying a distant period of history or abstract chemical formulas. A degree does not teach you how to perform your job – period. Nor should it, the strength of an academic education lies in its generality, and it is this confusion around the academic institution’s function which leads to certain disasters such as exist in the present state of things. This cultural connection between employment and university education has become the premise upon which governments may assert control over the distribution of knowledge-resources, it becomes the premise upon which costs explode upwards, and a piece of paper becomes the basis of social trust.

      To more directly respond to your point, though, I think you’re wrong in thinking there is any sort of inherent increase in employability if you have a degree. There is no way to prove that there is a causal relationship between the university degree and your performance in the market. How do you know that the real reason these kids get jobs at a higher rate than their un-degreed peers is because they are simply smarter, harder-working individuals who have a better understanding of what social expectations are? How do you know that they need the university system to learn this information? The cultural role of the university in this age is simply that: culture. There is nothing hard and fast about it.

      We need to more closely consider the opportunity cost of the present system: Four to five years of labour (more for legal and medical professionals!)? 150 thousand to a quarter million dollars? What if law firms, hospitals, accounting agencies all had to education their own from aged 16 or 18 (the way it used to happen — and NOT using the public dollar)? Does an advertising account coordinator or a elementary school teacher really need to spend that time taking psychology and math courses? This is surely not the best of all possible worlds.

  3. Your experience as a PhD advisor is amusing, and as a parent of a college student. Me, I’ve got two adult children in their twenties (one went to work right out of high school and the other into the Marines) going to school right now, one to the local Tech (formerly know as a Vo-tech) and the other to the local quasi-university. The former can never find her advisor, and when located said advisor has no idea of the curriculum. The latter finds his and is met with a shrug and a, “Okay.” Their greatest joy however, is trying to find a bureaucrat who knows something other than, “Oh, well, you’ll have to go down to **** (insert office here) and they’ll help you.”

  4. I agree that amenities, bureaucrats, and reduced state funding has had a large impact on college costs, but I think people are missing the main driver of increased costs: demand.

    There is inelastic demand for research-based and exclusivity-based prestige in higher education. The prices at the local community college have increased, but not that much. The fact that people want classes with 20 students taught by professors who have raised millions of dollars in research funding and published in the best journals (not directly, but the prestige they associate with this) is an expensive good that cannot benefit from economies of scale. Research costs money, having a professor that teaches 60 students per year costs money (2/1 with 20 per), and as more people demand these things the price of them rises (as supply does not increase).

    In my opinion, we can talk about the other things as much as we want, but until Americans stop equating the value of their education with the prestige associated with their certificate, costs will continue to escalate as more and more universities chase that prestige.

  5. At the campus I’m familiar with, we had people employed as full-time advisors, yet some of them actually misinformed the students about courses. Since they were attached to each college, I’m guessing their advice never included encouraging students to consider which courses would lead to satisfactory employment.

  6. I almost never leave responses, however i did some searching and wound up here The Costs of Higher Education
    Pileus. And I actually do have a couple of questions for you if
    it’s allright. Is it only me or does it seem like some of the responses come across like they are left by brain dead visitors? 😛 And, if you are writing at other sites, I would like to keep up with anything fresh you have to post. Would you list of every one of your communal pages like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

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