Is Tuition Really Too Expensive? Yes, it Is

The problems in higher education may be wildly overstated, say some observers at a recent conference at Bates College.

According to a press release issued by the college:

While the cost of higher education is certainly rising, a group of national leaders in higher education told an Oct. 29 gathering at Bates, that cost is neither inflated nor out of proportion with the considerable benefits of a higher education.

Summarizing their data and arguments from Why Does College Cost So Much?, [College of William and Mary economist David] Feldman and his colleague Robert] Archibald convincingly refuted the common wisdom that college costs are out of control, running away thanks to bloated administrations, effete tenured faculty and “country club” expectations of comfort and service — all of which the economists labeled as the “dysfunction narrative” usually cited in the media and by critics of education.

Yes, they apparently “convincingly refuted” it by pointing out that such price hikes are suitable. Because, as Bates explains,

These increases result from systemic factors affecting other industries too — for example, health care and legal services — and the increases in educational cost parallel the increases in those fields. All of these services can be delivered only by highly educated, highly skilled professionals whose high salaries are determined by the market; and are fields in which productivity cannot be dramatically improved through technology, unlike in manufacturing. The latter illustrates the phenomenon called “cost disease,” where certain segments of the economy see costs rise as rising productivity in other segments forces prices down.

How terribly reassuring. It might be true that college costs “result from systemic factors affecting other industries” but that doesn’t mean all is well in higher education pricing.

College is now three times more expensive, in inflation-adjusted real dollars, than it was in 1978. But the average American isn’t earning three times more money than he did in 1978. Indeed, the median household income is roughly the same. So the cost of college is increasing more than people can afford to pay for it. That’s the problem.

Bates, incidentally, costs $51,300 a year.

Daniel Luzer

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