Why Does College Cost So Much?
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.
The campus of the small urban institution where I teach ancient Greek and Latin is being significantly altered through the building of a multi-million dollar student center (which the college has specifically raised funds for), just a few feet from my office (which was once an apartment building from the earlier part of the previous century, with plumbing to match). There is a plan to increase faculty salaries (they have stayed pretty much the same for some years); the plan does include raises for administrators. Numerous courses (especially core curriculum) courses are taught by adjuncts, though students are not always aware of the difference between adjunct and full-time faculty; some of our adjuncts have indeed been teaching at the college for years.
If you think that classes and teaching and a student’s major are central to a college education, you should also know that a significant portion of tuition dollars is not going towards these. The reason that college costs more is not entirely, directly about students’ education.
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