Why is College so Expensive?

Finny Kuruvilla

According to the College Board's analysis of Trends in College Pricing 2016, the average estimated full-time undergraduate budget for a private, nonprofit four-year residential experience was $49,320. This budget includes tuition and fees ($33,480), room and board ($11,890), books and supplies ($1,230), transportation ($1,070), and other expenses ($1,650).

Although estimates vary across programs and being in-state or out-of-state, the trend is obvious: college today is expensive and costs are increasing more rapidly than inflation. But why are costs increasing so rapidly? Not because the quality of education is increasing. Let’s first discuss the most widely held myth commonly touted as the explanation.

Myth: A lack of government funding has driven tuition prices higher. In fact, government funding for education has grown more than virtually any other category. Since 1960, for example, military spending has increased less than 2-fold, while funding for education has grown by over 10-fold. So a lack of government funding is not to blame for the crisis in higher education costs.  (Notably, Sattler College does not take government funds.)

In fact, there are two main explanations for the rise in higher education costs. First, the modern university is now bloated, bureaucratic, and spending more than ever on peripherals. The typical university is now more of a conglomerate, running a hospitality business, culinary business, athletic business, and mental health business. Elaborate dorms, gourmet meals, athletic programs, and health centers are expensive endeavors, provoking a virtual arms race as colleges compete to recruit students. The prospective student tour is a calculated pageant to generate oohs and ahs from students and parents from the sleek facilities. This arms race is illustrated by the greater spend on administration (not faculty), which has rapidly outpaced inflation. The buildings, stadiums, kitchens, and hospitals require intense and expensive staffing.  Top university coaches often make over a million dollars per year. That’s where your tuition dollars are going.

Rather than place an emphasis on students’ minds and character, the modern university system promotes a pampered lifestyle with plenty of entertainment. Not surprisingly, college students today are more entitled than ever, whining about trifles. But students are merely reflecting the coddled environment that has recruited and incubated them.

The second reason for the pace of educational costs is a failure to leverage technology. Over the last 30 years, the cost of food, computers, transportation, and clothing has been driven down by technology. Factoring in inflation, computers have never been so cheap. When the cost of nearly everything else has been so impacted by technology, it is little surprise that education looks relatively expensive, having not participated in technological gains.

Both of these problems can be easily addressed. First, colleges should focus on education and character development -- not athletics or fancy dormitories. It would do the next generation of students good to experience something closer to normal life, not to be indulged. Colleges should be competing around learning and character development, not on manicured lawns or locker rooms. This alone will drive down the cost of tuition for students who are serious about education rather than entertainment and elaborate buildings. This is a simple and straightforward solution to the first driver behind increased costs.

What about technology? Colleges and universities should also move toward a more informed and intelligent use of technology in the classroom. Rather than having professors develop syllabi that mimic thousands of other professors across the world, colleges should leverage the top communicators in their fields and provide students access to their curriculum through technology. Students then have the ability to watch lectures from gifted instructors who can present difficult material clearly and memorably.

The standard paradigm in higher education is to sit in a room in front of a professor writing on a board or giving a lecture. In their desks, students frantically copy down the professor’s comments in their notebook or on a laptop. This basic teaching model has been basically untouched for the last several hundred years.

In the so-called “flipped” classroom environment, students watch top-quality lectures outside of class where they can hit pause or rewind and process material at their own speed. In-class time is invested in problem solving and personal interaction rather than copying down information. In this educational model, professors gain more time to invest in the students rather than repeat material. The classroom becomes an environment where students reinforce what they have already learned and begin to problem-solve, as opposed to furiously taking notes. Technology can serve a dual purpose, reducing the cost invested in developing curriculum and increasing the quality of time spent between students and professors.

There are ways to reverse the current trends. We can drive down costs, refocus on learning and character, and use technology to our benefit. What if students graduate without debt, or even having saved something to start a business or purchase a house? It’s time that costs come down.

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