by Hillary Patin

The Cost of College

College costs a lot more than it used to. The Consumer Price Index (the average price of common goods and services such as food, transportation, and medical care) has risen about 115% since 1985, while college costs have risen about 500% in the same time period.
The Cost of College

To make matters worse, the value of a college degree isn’t what it used to be. Many argue that the college degree is the new high school diploma, since jobs that did not traditionally require college degrees now do, according to online job postings. Furthermore, the proportion of people who have a college degree has been increasing year after year, resulting in a more competitive job market for college graduates than before.

Is the cost of college worth the benefits?

To answer this question, we first must answer another: What are the benefits of college? A Pew Research Center survey from 2011 shows that 47% of Americans believe that the purpose of college is to teach work-related skills and knowledge, while 39% believe college is meant to help students grow personally and intellectually. Interestingly, survey respondents who were college graduates put more emphasis on intellectual growth while those without college degrees put more emphasis on career preparation. This implies that those who graduated from college felt their money was better spent in terms of personal growth and intellect than job preparation.

The same survey also shows that 57% of Americans believe that the higher education system in the United States fails to provide students with good value for the money. Furthermore, 75% of Americans think that college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.

Given all of this information, would-be college graduates without financially well-off parents to foot the bill are stuck in a bind: If college is more helpful in terms of personal growth than career preparation, is it worth the price tag and the time? If a college degree is the new high school diploma, does that mean it’s basically a necessity, despite rising costs?

Why is the cost of college rising so fast?

If the cost of college rose at the same rate as everything else, it would be much easier to decide to become a college graduate. After all, paying for college with summer jobs while in school is much easier to swallow than signing up for 30-year student loans. So why is the cost of college rising so fast? The answer may surprise you.

If you asked a college administrator, they’d probably tell you that public funding for higher education has been cut over the past few decades, resulting in tuition increases that students have to bear. If you take a look at the numbers, you’ll see that the truth is counterintuitive: Public funding for higher education is much higher today in inflation-adjusted dollars than it was in the 1960s. In fact, higher education public funding has increased at a much faster rate than other government spending. For example, government spending on higher education has increased 10-fold since 1960, while government spending on the military has only increased 1.8 times since 1960. Meanwhile, states have been cutting their funding of higher education, and the number of students enrolling has been increasing, lowering the rate of per-student public funding. Perhaps what’s most alarming is that there’s enough money in the system to fund everyone’s education when you add up the total amount of money that goes towards higher education from the federal government, state governments, local governments, and nonprofit institutions. If there’s that much money in the higher education system, then why is the cost of college rising at such alarming rates, and where is that money going?

Bloated college administrations increasing cost of education

Full-time professors today are making barely more than what full-time professors made in the 1970s, adjusted for inflation. Furthermore, there’s been about a 30% increase in lower-paid, part-time professors since the 1970s, which confirms that the total dollar amount going toward professors has not increased. College administrators, on the other hand, have boomed. Between 1975 and 2008, the California State University system increased its number of administrators on staff from 3,800 to 12,183—and it’s not the only one.

Public funds funneled to the most fortunate

In addition to an increase in college administrators, colleges feel the pressure to keep up their status by spending money on increasing the quality of dorms, food, and sports. While the free market usually leads to low competitive prices, the opposite happens with colleges, especially elite ones. Higher prices allow colleges to recruit the students they want as a part of their student body. While a handful of students pay the full sticker price, students with excellent records and accomplishments can attend for a discounted price while adding to the value of the school. Because the student body is a part of the selling point for elite colleges, being able to select the students they want is imperative to maintaining the culture and status they ascribe to. Therefore, counterintuitively, increasing the full sticker price of elite colleges could increase the equality of access to elite education. With wealthier students paying full price to subsidize the smartest students from less wealthy families, more money would be spread across more students’ education.

Selective state schools act similarly to private, elite colleges, using aid to attract the best students. Non-selective schools operate completely differently. They serve at-risk students, and students who need money the most. The result is that high-achieving students from educated families receive a disproportionate amount of financial assistance. With more money increasingly going toward the most fortunate, the income gap can only be expected to increase. This means that college is more affordable for those who can afford it, and less affordable for those who can’t.

It’s no wonder, then, that those who did not attend college put more emphasis on career preparation and less on personal growth in the Pew Research Center study mentioned earlier. Because college is more expensive for the less privileged, weighing the costs and benefits of going to college differs across income brackets. Less privileged students who need the money for education the most are going to have the hardest time getting it, and will receive a less glamorous education.

The cost of college? Not the same for everyone

Some argue that the costs of college are still worth the benefits since those with a four-year degree make 98% more money per hour than those without a four-year degree. The pay gap between college graduates and those without degrees is the largest it has been in decades. On the other hand, some argue that the return on investment for those with a debt-ridden, four-year degree is continually getting worse. In 2010, students could expect to break even eight years after graduating from school. If this trend continues, those graduating in 2030 could expect to break even with the costs of college at age 37. Despite both of these perspectives, return on investment on college differs for everyone. While many graduate from Ivy League schools with the help of public financial assistance, others graduate from money-strapped state colleges and community colleges with little to no public financial assistance. All we can say for sure is that the cost of college is extremely high for those with less wealth, and most affordable for those who can already afford it.

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