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April 13, 2012 4:35 PM Can We Make College Cheaper?

By Daniel Luzer

Not really, argues Emily Badger in Miller-McCune. As she explains, the reason college is more expensive has to do with the nature of college; it’s a service. But it might still be possible to make college more affordable for students According to her article:

Critics of American higher education have a set of theories to explain the ever-rising cost of college tuition. Schools are inefficient. They blow too much money on administrators, not enough on academics. The academics they do have spend their time on research, not students. And those students live in an increasingly plush world created by the arms race for prestige rankings: Best medium-sized college in the Midwest! Most wired campus in the country! Top-rated college for would-be aerospace engineers!
[Economist David] Feldman and William & Mary colleague Robert Archibald refer to this set of theories as the “dysfunction narrative” of the rising cost of college tuition. This is the narrative that dominates policy debates around what to do about the problem. And Feldman and Archibald argue that these explanations get the whole story wrong.

In fact, the cost of education always rises faster than inflation, but this is true of lots of things, particularly services like dental care life insurance, hospitals, and nursing homes. These services always become more expensive because they involve people, and people’s time is expensive, and the cost is rising. It’s also, for instance, much more expensive to get a haircut now than it was 20 years ago, for much the same reasons.

So it’s probably not about the dormitories, or the lazy professors; it’s just the nature of the industry.

That said, the fact that the cost of delivering a college education is rising naturally doesn’t mean students should have to pay more.

Because there’s another trend going on in higher education. The cost of operating a college is perhaps getting higher but at the same time, state governments are contributing less money (some 80 percent of American college students attend public institutions). State support for public colleges and universities has fallen by about 26 percent per full-time student in the last 20 years.

A fairly direct way to make college cheaper, therefore, is for states to get serious about supporting education again.

Some of the reason for cutting state funds for higher education, at least according to state legislators, is to try and make public universities operate more efficiently. But trying to force colleges to “cut the fat” isn’t working. Colleges are just passing the fat to students.

I’ve long suspected, though I can’t really prove, that’s what’s really going on here is something like this. Many public colleges used to be a sort of bare-bones institutions. State schools like SUNY Stony Brook or the University of California, Davis were a perfectly good schools, throughout the 70s and 80s, but they weren’t fancy. They were kind of run down, there were no ivy-covered walls and historic buildings or luxurious student centers.

And then the states slashed funding. And so these schools, which already were pretty minimal in their spending, were forced to raise tuition and make students to take on debt to go to college.

But as long as colleges can raise tuition, well, why not raise it a little more? Why not hire some more professors, build some more buildings, make the campus nice? Such actions will attract more, higher quality students. And then the school will look better, and administrators might be able to be in line for even better jobs.

If students are willing to taking on debt to go to college, why not ask them to take on more debt? Colleges use that debt to build a better, shinier institutions.

But from the outside this looks like Stony Brook just forced its students to take on debt so administrators could make the campus look pretty. Critics, understandably, see a lot of debt and a lot of construction and think that’s it. In fact, however, the real problem is the general privatization of the state universities, due to declining state funding. That’s why students have too much debt.

Universities are just taking the logical step in recognizing the trend and taking advantage of it. And why not? No one’s going to reward them for keeping debt levels low.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

Comments

  • Snarki, child of Loki on April 13, 2012 10:48 PM:

    State universities are the "public option" of higher education; their competition is what keeps private university tuition in line.

    Without that competition, the price will rise until demand drops, just as it is doing right now for law schools, as noted in "The Magic Law School Number" post on this blog.

    Public funding of state universities is a recognition that there is a public benefit that results from having higher education more widely available, with merit-based rather than wealth-based admission. With that public funding comes a requirement that tuition prices are set based on the underlying cost (with state subsidy), rather than 'whatever the market will bear'.

    All of that has broken down badly under decades of attack from GOP budget-cutters, and we're seeing what a "90%+ private" university system looks like.

    Want tuition to stop rocketing up? Restore the public option.