Why is College so Expensive?

We’ve all heard the news – the price of college tuition has increased dramatically. But there seems to be very little discussion regarding why. Some people blame it on the fact that wages have remained stagnant while other costs – for everything, not just tuition – have increased. Others say it’s not that college is unaffordable – students are just too entitled and not willing to work for what they want! I have long blamed it on college athletics. Many schools pay exorbitant amounts of money to coaches of varying sports (mostly football) and those salaries have to come from somewhere. Apparently, all those assumptions are not the main reason for the cost increase. So why is college so expensive?

A complex answer

Like most things in life, the answer isn’t cut and dry. The things I listed above probably factor in somewhere, except for maybe the “entitlement” one. First, let’s look at the numbers. The United States actually spends more per college student than almost every other nation in the world, according to a 2018 Education at a Glance report, at $30k per student per year. This amount comes from both families and government programs like loans and grants.

One of the reasons for such a high cost is that students in the US are more likely to live away from home and on campus. That’s something other countries don’t do as often as we do. Along with housing, you have costs like meals and healthcare that raise the prices. These things may be totally necessary, but they have costs associated nonetheless. But that’s still not the whole story.

Staffing and politics

Besides housing costs, the US spends more than any other country to pay its staff and faculty. Again, this kind of expense is important, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s costing students an average of $23k per student per year. Another issue is that unlike most other things that people purchase, the costs of college don’t drop due to changes in manufacturing or technology. The people who teach also have college degrees and their salaries – rightly or wrongly – have risen much faster than people in other industries that don’t require higher education. All of that adds up to more expenses that need to be covered.

Furthermore, state governments are spending less each year on students. I’d love to pin the blame on “small government conservatives”, but that’s unfair. Many governments have to balance budgets with rising costs of other important matters such as healthcare. Education, unfortunately, suffers in turn.

For now and the future

This all means that schools have to do whatever they can not just to attract more students, but also to attract wealthier students who can afford to pay the full price of tuition. Universities feel as though they must operate like a business in order to survive. Some accept more foreign or out-of-state students who have to pay more to attend. This all translates to hiring more staff that don’t hold teaching positions, but may help attract and retain students. These include positions such as admissions officers, fund-raisers, and, yes, athletic staff. We have a chicken-or-the-egg scenario on our hands now.

Unfortunately, this issue is much more complicated than I can cover in a short blog post. What people have to ask themselves is whether a college education will give them a significant return on their investment. There will be people on both sides of that response. For now, it doesn’t seem as though the issue will resolve easily. We may still be looking at a future where we wonder why college is so expensive.

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