Political Animal


May 13, 2012 10:28 AM The tuition is too damn high

By Kathleen Geier

I’ve made it a habit to keep track of the New York Times’ “Most E-Mailed” articles list, because the list provides a fascinating window into the dreams, obsessions, and (especially) the anxieties of middle-class Americans. Currently, the most-emailed article is this piece, about how the ever-escalating cost of college combined with steep cuts in student aid and public support for higher education has left an entire generation drowning in debt. The article contains many scary statistics; here is one of them:

From 2001 to 2011, state and local financing per student declined by 24 percent nationally. Over the same period, tuition and fees at state schools increased 72 percent, compared with 29 percent for nonprofit private institutions, according to the College Board.

One major problem is that, not unlike the subprime lenders of the mortgage crisis, many colleges provide misleading information to naive prospective students about the true cost:

College marketing firms encourage school officials to focus on the value of the education rather than the cost. For example, an article on the cover of Enrollment Management, a newsletter aimed at college admissions officials, urged writers of admissions materials to “avoid bad words like ‘cost,’ ‘pay’ (try ‘and you get all this for…’), ‘contract’ and ‘buy’ in your piece and avoid the conflicting feelings they generate.”
The financial aid award letters to newly admitted students can also be a minefield for students and parents sorting through the true costs of a school. Some are written in a manner that suggests the student is getting a great deal, by blurring the line between grants and loans or not making clear how much the student may have to pay or borrow.

This is an extremely screwed up situation and there are a number of things we as a society need to do to address the problem of skyrocketing student debt. Here are two of the most important ones:

First, it’s long past time that we institute free college. Public colleges and universities should be tuition-free, just as public schools through grade 12 are free. Today, a college degree is at least as vital a prerequisite for entering the middle class as a high school diploma was 100 years ago. We need to update our public policies to reflect the times, and a higher education today should be affordable for everyone who is capable of doing college-level work. If we want to have a society in which every individual has the opportunity to fulfill her potential and an economy that makes the most efficient use of everyone’s talents, ending tuition at public colleges is essential.

Secondly, what the hell ever happened to the concept of consumer protection in this country? Clearly, we need strong consumer protection legislation that will look out for the interests of prospective college students and their families. Colleges should be mandated to provide full disclosure about the true cost of the education they offer, in the clearest and most simple language possible. One student in the Times article says of the private college she attends, “[W]hen I graduate, I’m going to owe like $900 a month. No one told me that.” We should make sure that every student is provided with estimates of how much it will cost them every month to pay back their student loans, and how many years it will take for the entire debt to be repaid.

Being weighed down by so much debt at such a young age is a terrible thing (and let’s not forget that student loan debts have to be paid back, even when a person declares bankruptcy — which, come to think of it, is another policy that should be changed). I graduated from college in 1994, and I will be forever grateful that my education was so affordable. I received a wonderful education at Hunter College, which is part of New York City’s CUNY system, and tuition there was low. My parents paid my tuition for the first two years, until my dad lost his job. After that I applied for financial aid, and through a combination of scholarships, grants, and loans, plus working 20 hours a week, I was able to live on my own and pay for school. I graduated a little less than 5 years after I matriculated, and my total debt upon leaving (and I remember the figure exactly) was only $1,300! What I did would just not be feasible today. Even at low-cost public school; even with grants, scholarships, and wages from a part-time job, few if any students today would be able to graduate with such a low level of debt.

Sometimes I think back and I reflect that I grew up in an America that, for all its profound and manifold faults, kinda sorta worked. For instance, if you were an ordinary middle class kid, like I was, and graduated from an average-quality American public high school, as I did, you would be able to attend an affordable public college and have every expectation of making a decent middle-class living after that. Sadly, that trajectory is available for increasingly few young people today. I feel for them. It’s my fondest hope that America can get itself unscrewed up enough so that we will once again have an economy and a political system that most of the time functions effectively for most working people.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • Nancy Cadet on May 13, 2012 12:03 PM:

    I agree with both points. (I attended CUNY-Queens College when the only fee was $35, lived with my parents , worked part time and had a Regents scholarship that paid for books; then went to an Ivy League Ph.D. Program. I now teach at CUNY.)
    Other points are the need for universities to control administrative costs, which are out of control. How many deans, vice presidents, publicity offices, etc and the attendant office staff are necessary?

    Also, the rip off for profit diploma mills ( ie De Vry, ACA, Kaplan) need to be shut down, not awarded Federal loan money! We saw the big lobbying push to spare them any accountability .

    Like health care, this should not be a for profit business, at any level from pre-K, through absurd charters and home schooling subsidies, to tax holidays from big universities who own massive amounts of real estate.

  • Anonymous on May 13, 2012 12:13 PM:

    First, itís long past time that we institute free college. Public colleges and universities should be tuition-free

    I think you mean "re-institute" free college. At least in CA. From WikiPedia:

    The Master Plan for Higher Education also banned tuition, as it was based on the ideal that public higher education should be free to students (just like K-12 primary and secondary education). As officially enacted, it states that public higher education "shall be tuition free to all residents." Thus, California residents legally do not pay tuition. However, the state has suffered severe budget deficits ever since the enacting of Proposition 13 in 1978, which led to the imposition of per-unit enrollment fees for California residents (equivalent in all but name to tuition) at all community colleges and all CSU and UC campuses to get around the legal ban on tuition. Non-resident and international students, however, do pay tuition, which at community colleges is usually an additional $100 per unit (or credit) on top of the standard enrollment fee. Since no other American state bans tuition in public higher education, this issue is unique to California. In summer 2010, the state's public higher education systems began investigating the possibility of dropping the semantic confusion and switching to the more accurate term, tuition.[3]

  • martin on May 13, 2012 12:15 PM:

    Sorry, Anonymous was me

  • Anonymous on May 13, 2012 12:23 PM:

    The cynical predatory money guys have just looked at the revenue streams for education at all levels, but especially state supported education, and saw it ripe for the picking.

    Don't forget that the universities themselves especially at the state level began modeling themselves on the retrograde organizational model known as the corporation which automatically kills any meritocracy that education once represented: you earned credit for good work, not just for being there, and it appears that the less you work --as an administrator -- the more inflated your salary gets. ALL the big money goes to administrators, with the mid level people often pulling in $400,000 a year, while top professors, even Nobel winning physicists, top out at around $185,000 in our state's system.

    The NYT today had a very interesting op-ed by William Deresiewicz on "Capitalists and Other Psychopaths" in which studies reveal that 10% of Wall Streeters exhibit psychopathy (vs. 1% for the general population) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/opinion/sunday/fables-of-wealth.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=capitalists%20and%20other%20psychopaths&st=Search with one telling paragraph regarding our devaluation of educators:

    "MOST important, neither entrepreneurs nor the rich have a monopoly on brains, sweat or risk. There are scientists ó and artists and scholars ó who are just as smart as any entrepreneur, only they are interested in different rewards. A single mother holding down a job and putting herself through community college works just as hard as any hedge fund manager. A person who takes out a mortgage ó or a student loan, or who conceives a child ó on the strength of a job she knows she could lose at any moment (thanks, perhaps, to one of those job creators) assumes as much risk as someone who starts a business."

  • Josef K on May 13, 2012 12:57 PM:

    I finished grad school in 1998. I began repaying my student debt in November of that year.

    I'm still paying it, and have a current expected payoff date of sometime in 2025.

    I will be 55 by then. My son will be 23. My daughter will be 16.

    This, as the author says, is utter madness. How did we as a country get to the point where this state of affairs is considered normal?

  • Anonymous on May 13, 2012 1:37 PM:

    First, itís long past time that we institute free college.

    Meh. Personally, I have mixed feelings about that. One of the reasons a college degree is necessary today in lieu of a mere hs diploma is the deplorable meaning of a hs diploma. I suspect decades of weak funding, a focus on standardization, and the profession of teaching being an decreasingly attractive field for highly qualified people may be to blame. Anyway, k-12 schooling isn't what it once was. College should be "higher education". A place where people go who WANT to rigorously challenge themselves. Having to pay for an education certainly is a factor in narrowing the field to a more serious core of students. Otherwise, it's just an extension of a failed k-12 system.

  • TCinLA on May 13, 2012 1:51 PM:

    I looked at those figures for the increase in fees at state schools and realize that, had that situation existed 40 years ago when I went to college, I would not have one of the three degrees I have. As it was, I was able to do four years on the GI Bill (a pittance then in terms of buying power compared to the WW2 version), and came out of grad school with something less than $4K in debt, which was easily paid off in about 3 years as I recall. That was back in the day when California worked, when education was seen as a public priority. Of course, the beneficiaries of that free (or close to free) public education who went on to successful lives these past 50 years now see the taxes they pay to support the same opportunity for those who followed as some sort of theft from their hard-earned hoards, and vote accordingly.

    Incredible as it seems, while the California State University System is cutting itself once again (a second year in a row) by 20%, the College Presidents are lobbying for a 15% raise! The college administration costs really are out of control. The necessary savings could easily come from cutting the deans and staffs by 50% (and given the competency of most of those people, you could have them number off, 1, 2, 1, 2... then flip a coin - heads it's the 1's, tails it's the 2's - and it wouldn't matter which came up). My sister-in-law, a biology professor, retired this past year not because she had hit the age to do so (she actually hasn't yet), but because she could no longer take the overbearing mendacity of the college administration. (One can make the same point about K-12 education, too)

    It's all just part of the hollowing-out of an imperial society when it metastasizes from a republic to an empire. You could see the same thing in Rome. The result will be the same here.

  • T-Rex on May 13, 2012 3:36 PM:

    All I can say is "Amen." The U.S. was the birthplace of the affordable state university, providing an education to anyone who wanted one and was good enough to pass the courses. Now, it may be the grave of that same concept. The same Ayn Rand mentality that makes people think poor people are to blame for being poor and that the unemployed are out of work only because they're lazy also equate public education with "suckling at the public teat" and the other obnoxious metaphors. The idea that society can make an investment to encourage independence and productivity is absolutely unknown to these people.

  • Mimikatz on May 13, 2012 3:40 PM:

    Second all points. I graduated from UC Berkeley when it was virtually free, just room and board and about $100 a year. California has really turned it's back on the ideal of a free public higher education, and today's mega-rich in high tech and entertai mention won't pay the taxes to keep it going, even as they often profited from it as students.

    As the Times piece alluded to above says, capitalism rewards predators, and they have extended their tentacles into every aspect of American life, with everything for sale to the highest bidder and screw everyone else. Higher Ed is definitely the next subprime crisis.

  • zandru on May 13, 2012 3:57 PM:

    Somebody quoted the possibility that there may even be "scientists ... who are just as smart as any entrepreneur"

    Nonsense. I think most scientists are probably SMARTER.

    Like Captcha sez: "scientific nacoupp" (How does it KNOW?!?)

  • Jimo on May 13, 2012 8:03 PM:

    Three thoughts:

    1. A return to a normal level of financial assistance by government to higher education (let alone, 100% assistance) solves the "consumer protection" problem. Money comes with strings. We can be 100% certain that any state auditor's office will take a far more harsh looks at a school's books than a 19 year old.

    2. Much of the funding shift has, as is obvious, in the form of personal debt (undischargeable). But it is important to remember what we shifted from, which was not merely government funding but a repayment mechanism via sharply progressive income taxes. Those who pulled the most out of the system paid--over a lifetime--the most of the cost. One of the consequences of a flattened income tax system and endless "Romney loopholes" is that a whole generation or two got the advantage of a higher education system paid for by their predecessors but didn't have to fund the system for later generations.

    3. For graduate students, the government should look seriously at replacing some portion of aid with direct work for Uncle Sam. While many grad students now work as teaching assistents or research assistants, others could easily work for the U.S. doing valuable work. They could be paid fairly cheap salaries (perhaps an annual equivalent of $30k), they'd get real work experience to put on their resumes, and the taxpayer would get better value for the assistance provided. (Heck, the government could even insist, vaguely like ROTC type programs, on specific periods of service, e.g., summers, where members take on special projects of particular value.)

  • nelle on May 13, 2012 8:04 PM:

    In 2005, approx 48.5% of faculty is adjunct faculty. When I taught as an adjunct, I topped out at $23,000 per year (I mostly did it for benefits for the family while my husband tried to start a business).

    So don't blame faculty costs for rising tuition. During the time that I taught at the university, the head of the university went from a salary of 160,000 to nearly 400,000. Corporate model indeed.

    Students pay the same per course, but some of their instructors are on food stamps.

  • pjcamp on May 14, 2012 12:29 AM:

    Debt is a secondary problem. The root cause is the rapid increase in the cost of going to college. And the root cause of that is the explosive growth of high paid administrators. About a year ago, Malcolm Harris was on this beat. I learned from his article at n+1:


    that the Department of Education expects, by 2014, administrators will outnumber instructors at four year nonprofit colleges. Administration has, to some degree, become a form of perpetual motion, whose primary purpose is to create things that need to be administrated. Boards of Trustees should oversee this but they don't. They function much like corporate boards, with the primary purpose of going along and getting along.

    Administrative growth has not only driven tuition increases but it has also driven decreases in the percentage of available funds allocated to instructional purposes. Adjunct faculty earn next to nothing but in many places bear the bulk of the instructional duties.

    Furthermore, administrators in the not too distant past were faculty members who were doing their duty for a few years before returning to their real jobs. Nowadays, administration is itself a career and those who choose it view themselves in the same way as corporate management, and we all know how that works. We've corporatized the university and that inevitably leads to a situation in which management views itself as the essential cog in the machine and pays itself accordingly, while labor is a luxury to be dispensed with when times are bad.

    I don't know how you reverse that.

  • KK on May 14, 2012 10:42 AM:

    One more option-Second semester Jr. year in High School a personal finance course, mandatory. The woeful ignorance of all things money is pathetic. It is not rocket science but it needs to be learned. How in the world could someone not know their payment responsibility?

  • Varecia on May 14, 2012 10:44 AM:

    I don't think anyone has yet investigated the basis for the disproportionately increasing costs of higher education we've seen over the past decade or so. I want to know exactly what part of the operations are devouring so much of the average school's budget. When I and my husband--a former university civil employee--were at our university, there was a shift to a more business oriented model and that seems to me to be when the costs started rising at much faster rate than they should have. Off the cuff, I attribute the rising costs to an increase in administrative positions, and an emphasis on frenetic construction and modification of university facilities intended to lure students to ultra-glamorous campus facilities.

  • zandru on May 14, 2012 10:45 AM:

    Thanks, pjcamp, for quantifying the issue of overpaid hordes of administrators. Let me also put in a plug for the bloated professional-ball-games athletic establishment.

    At the University of New Mexico, a little backwater no-account school, the football coach gets a salary of literally MILLIONS per season. Since the last coach was a zero in the winning and personnel departments (the U was sued for his treatment of the female staff and his assistant coaches didn't like the way he'd manhandle and choke them), the Board of Regents not only had to pay his salary, then substantial damages to the victims, THEN a golden parachute that would not have been out of place on Wall Street. Plus the salary and costs for a new coach.

    Let's not go into the mandatory basketball and baseball programs. Each have had totally new stadiums built for them in the last few years...

    All this goes into exploding student fees, and appears to take away from professor and teaching salaries. The practice is widely unpopular in New Mexico, with even the right wingers offering criticisms - to no avail.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on May 14, 2012 10:56 AM:

    I graduated a little less than 5 years after I matriculated, and my total debt upon leaving (and I remember the figure exactly) was only $1,300!

    I am so jellus... Were I born ten years sooner.

    Student loan debt has created such a wonderful set of counterproductive conundrums and nonsuch. Take my student debt: I've got private loans and federal loans, but my fed loans are in indefinite forbearance, because I'm paying out the ass for my private loan. Sorry, Uncle Sam, you'll get your 10lbs of flesh after the Fat Cat in the Suit. Kinda how it works when private student loans can't be discharged in bankruptcy. Isn't it ironic?

    I'm also willing to bet that retirement for the millenials is going to be one big, hot mess because of the front-load of student debt. My employee deductions into my retirement account are laughably small--somewhere in the realm of 20 bucks every two weeks with employer matching or something. It's really all I can afford. And I'm not even counting on Social Security to be around in 40 years. Aren't you boomers so happy you were able to get while the gettin' was good?!

  • zandru on May 14, 2012 11:11 AM:

    "Aren't you boomers so happy you were able to get while the gettin' was good?!" asks Sgt Gym Bunny.

    Frankly, the feeling of relief is poisoned by the realization that younger generations are getting the shaft. It's a great incentive to use those "golden" (or at least silver-plated) years for political action on behalf of you guys and your descendents.

  • Milan Moravec on May 22, 2012 6:47 PM:

    University of California response to tuition is too high, charge Californians higher tuition. UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau is outspoken on why elite public universities, like Cal, should charge Californians much more. With Birgeneauís leadership number 1 ranked Harvard is less costly (all in costs) than Cal. Chancellor Birgeneauís charge much more tuition to Californians makes Cal. the most expensive public higher education in our country!

    Birgeneau ($450,000 salary) likes to blame the politicians, since they stopped giving him every dollar expected. The Chancellorís Ďcharge Californians moreí tuition skyrocketed fees by an average 14% per year from 2006 to 2011-12 academic years. If Birgeneau had allowed fees to rise at the same rate of inflation over the past 10 years they would still be in reach of most middle income students. Increased funding is not Calís solution.

    Public UC Berkeley is to maximize access to the widest number of California students at a reasonable cost with a mission of diversity and equality of opportunity. Birgeneauís and Provost George Breslauerís ($306,000 salary) Ďcharge Californians moreí tuition denies middle income Californians the transformative value of Calís higher education.

    A sad unacceptable legacy for politicians, parents, and children.
    Opinion to: UC Board of Regents marsha.kelman@ucop.edu and Calif. State Senators and Assembly members.