Why Is College So Expensive?

You’ve probably heard about/experienced the many hardships of being a college* student (and the perks!). Many of the struggles students encounter while going through college can be boiled down to one thing: tuition. College is expensive, pretty much no matter where a student enrolls. As of 2013, about 70% of college students graduated with an average of $28,400 in debt. Why is tuition so high?

When I still lived in my hometown of Sacramento, CA, UC Davis students were constantly protesting tuition hikes and class cuts. Many were essentially paying a ton of money to try and take classes they couldn’t fit into. UC Davis administrators would try to calm the students, claiming the class cuts and tuition increases were a result of a lack of public funding. In other words: blame California, not us! College tuition has quadrupled over 35 years, could the huge tuition increase be simply a result of states cutting university funding? New York Times author Paul Campos wrote a short opinion article on Saturday about the rising cost of the tuition. 

The answer (at face value) is no. Public funding for American higher education is 10 times higher than it was 35 years ago. There’s a catch, however, as the amount of people going to college has increased by 50% since 1995, meaning that the overall amount of funding per student has gone down as state funding (despite it’s large increase) can’t keep up with increasing enrollment. So no, there have not been “cuts” to spending as administrators claimed, but there hasn’t exactly been a wealth of subsidies either.

Perhaps faculty have been getting pay raises to accommodate all these new students? That’s probably where all the tuition is going, right? Again, not really. Full-time faculty salaries have not changed by much in 35 years, not to mention the shift from full-time faculty to part-time. About half of postsecondary faculty are part-time employees, meaning they are also paid less. This means that professor salaries (on average) tend to be much lower than they were 35 years ago. On the contrary, many colleges and universities have experienced administration booms: the DEA claims administrative positions at colleges have increased 60 percent in the past 20 years. Such a substantial amount of administrative positions requires a substantial increase in budget allotted to paying them, thus a needed increase in tuition. Not to mention the often absurd salaries for university presidents. How one interprets this is subjective: cutting full-time faculty and focusing on the administration could simply be a response to the increasing demand and growing student populations on campuses across the US, or a confirmation that higher education institutions really are just in it for the money (as some people claim). This is most likely where a student’s tuition goes: paying a large amount of administrative staff that keep the university running (or at least brings in new students to pay tuition every year).

In closing, don’t believe the excuse that public funding cuts are increasing your tuition. It’s technically false (but may vary by institution). However, nobody can deny that there is now a booming higher education market. As demand increases, those who want to benefit will take interest and prices will rise. When the bachelor’s degree becomes the new high school diploma, colleges and universities will be able to charge whatever they want and students will still fight to get in. Maybe administrators should stop blaming funding cuts and simply go with “it’s just business”? Or maybe it’s simply a result of a growing interest in higher education.

* My post, as well as Paul Campos’, both discuss public universities that receive public funding. These issues are not directly relevant to private university tuition, although there may be some overlap.

One Reply to “Why Is College So Expensive?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *