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Why Does College Cost So Much?

Why Does College Cost So Much?
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As everyone knows, college tuition is expensive and it is growing. Americans now carry almost $1 trillion in debt from student loans and students graduate with an average of $25,000 debt. About two-thirds of students borrow money to pay for college. Student loan rates could double from the current 3.4 percent in just a few days if President Obama and congressional leaders cannot reach an agreement about legislation to keep the rate the same.

What does not get mentioned enough is why tuition is rising.

In an NPR report, Kevin Carey, the director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, explains why college tuition has risen much faster than inflation and incomes to the point that it is “now four times more expensive than it was, say 20 or 30 years ago.”

The money students are paying provides not only for colleges’ and universities’ operating expenses. It also provides for “administrative and teaching costs, scholarships, sports teams and elaborate new construction projects.”

New Construction and Administrative Costs

Of those, Carey singles out construction and administrative costs. Students and their parents may not realize this, but colleges and universities are competing for them and their tuition dollars. Schools undertake construction products as one way to “increase their status and prestige in relation to their competitors,” on the assumption that students and parents who see rows of shiny computers in the library, classrooms outfitted with technology, freshly-painted dorm rooms, student centers with new couches in the lounge area and café space and such will think “this is a good college.”

The ranks of college administrators — provosts, deans and assistant deans — have grown, says Carey:

I’m sure that most of those people are working hard at real jobs. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good idea to increase spending and pass along many of those costs onto students in the form of higher tuition. … And the more the prices go up, the more that these students who are squeezed out of opportunity are middle-income students, low-income students, and the net effect over time is to make our college and university system no longer the engine of economic mobility that it once was.

One area where colleges and universities are not, in many cases, increasing spending is for teaching. Less than 40 percent of students are now taught by tenure-track or tenured faculty and, indeed, the number of full-time professors has declined across the US. More and more students are now taught by non-tenure-track faculty, including graduate student teaching assistants or adjunct faculty (who often teach one or two courses at a number of different schools).

In other words, students are paying more for facilities, which they will very likely make use of, and for administrators, who are highly likely to do various things that impinge on students’ education and college life, though in a more indirect way than faculty who teach, advise and otherwise assist students.

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26 comments

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12:16PM PDT on Sep 27, 2012

my post didn't post, so I will re iterate? sports are all but pointless. money that is spent on sports could be used to fund clubs and groups that still rely on teamwork and are fun, but that promote positive changes in the world and on campus

7:07PM PDT on Jun 29, 2012

Ask the gop, you know the lie party !!

5:05PM PDT on Jun 29, 2012

In a words, because they pay football coaches so damn much money! Sports are great but not the be all & end all; education is the reason for college.

5:59PM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

Get rid of the freakin' football and basketball teams. What percentage of the kids who play varsity sports even go on to be coaches? All that money would be better spent on academics.

5:45PM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

I graduated in 1980 from one of the most expensive colleges in the country. It was $30,000 altogether for four years of tuition, room and board. Now that same college is around $40,000 just for one year's tuition. I think that part of the reason is the economy. Colleges used to depend on the interest from their endowments for a substantial proportion of their costs. With the economy tanking the colleges' economic reserves have sharply declined.

5:23PM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

I'm sorry, Kristina; this is a pretty poor article.

You say, "In an NPR report, Kevin Carey, the director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, explains why college tuition has risen much faster than inflation and incomes to the point that it is “now four times more expensive than it was, say 20 or 30 years ago.”

The money students are paying provides not only for colleges’ and universities’ operating expenses. It also provides for “administrative and teaching costs, scholarships, sports teams and elaborate new construction projects.”

That explains nothing. Students fees ALWAYS have paid for those things. I know, back when I went to school years ago, I (indirectly) paid for those things, as did all my fellow students.

Your article never addresses the root cause(s). So, I'm as much in the dark as I was when I started to read your essay.

4:10PM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

To put tuition in perspective, I ran numbers on my own "purchases". Since my undergrad days car prices have gone up by roughly a factor of 10, house prices by a factor of 20, and university tuition by a factor of 50. The system is broken.

2:21PM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

It is amazing how expensive free education is after all. When parents have to pay for all kinds of school supplies without the priviledge of grants and scholarships just for elementary education in public schools, how do we expect for colleges to not cast a few arms and legs?

1:19PM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

Students are at the bottom of the ladder.

12:23PM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

If loans were backed by the universities instead of us 52% of taxpayers, then I believe we would see several things happen...
- less defaulting,
- better education,
and, yes
- less people going to college...getting useless "education" and not being "trained" to do anything.

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Kristina Chew Kristina Chew teaches and writes about ancient Greek and Latin and is Online Advocacy and Marketing... more
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