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The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much (nytimes.com)
182 points by colincsl on Apr 5, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 129 comments

American universities aren't just about education. Or even research, for that matter. They're often about providing a "life experience" for undergraduates. So you have a huge investment in sports, entertainment, and living facilities that are basically unheard of in other countries. Plus, all sort of administrators and advisors who help students in a variety of different ways.

These add up to a great experience, and arguably make the education better. But they also reflect how little the US government provides vs. other countries. And how much students depend on the university to provide services that in other countries would be provided by other agencies. And how an American university is expected to provide much more than just classrooms, lectures, and research.

I graduated from two American universities (MIT and Northwestern). Each of these had an on-site medical facility (unnecessary in countries with nationalized health insurance), financial aid offices (unnecessary in places where the tuition is lower, or handled by centralized government agencies), student-only shuttle services (unnecessary where public transportation is good), sports teams (unheard of outside of the US), and a wide variety of extra-curriculars (again, basically non-existent outside of the US). Each of these requires a bunch of administrators.

The building in which I did my PhD had a huge support staff. In an Israeli or European university, I think that the 15-20 secretaries, planners, and managers would have been replaced by 3-4 people. Overworked and underpaid people, mind you, but that's how you keep costs low. And my office (as a graduate student) in the US was positively opulent compared to what you'll find abroad.

I used to think that student aid in the US was a great thing. But I do believe that American universities have basically decided that they can raise tuition without any penalty, because almost no one pays that sum out of pocket -- and everyone else just takes on crushing debt for many years to follow.

Now, the fact is that I had a blast in my undergrad years, and my experience editing the student newspaper led directly to my current career. But having met many students and graduates in Israel (where I live), where universities are places to learn and do research, rather than have "life experiences," I'm not at all convinced that the added expense and overhead are worthwhile.

The extra features are all based on how US students choose a school. Here undergrads go to the school with the beautiful student union, the gym with a juice bar and climbing wall, and want to live in a room near the nicest 24 hour dining hall with made to order stir fry and sandwiches. Having granite countertops in the dorm room also helps.

This is just how the select the specific university though. The target group of universities will probably be something like "City school in the North East", "Private college with small class sizes", or "Ivy with good greek life".

As a contrast ask a Chinese person how they pick which university to go to in China. You will immediately get a confused look and the answer: "The highest ranked one you can get in to". My co-worker couldn't even imagine picking based on anything else.

Which one? PKU? Qinghua? Shanghai Jiaotong? It is not such an easy choice anymore, and the universities in Beijing have poor facilities compared to Shanghai, making it difficult for them to attract shanghainese to come here to Beijing to study.

Even chinese students these days want heated and air conditioned dormitories, a shower in their dorm (at least on their floor! Definitely not in a separate building), and clean water to wash with. Or screw it, the ones that can will just go to some 2nd or 1st tier school in the U.S. or UK anyways so they aren't wasting their time.

I like how you're insinuating that current Chinese students are acting entitled by wanting heating and air conditioning in their dorms. Whereas in Canada/US, heating/air conditioning in dorms is considered a basic :P We really are spoiled in the West.

He is not saying they are acting entitled. Just saying it is a change from the past when they were ok accepting what we would consider lower standards as they didn't have much choice.

Oh I see, I guess I was just struck by the difference in expectations of students in the west and even (some) of the ones in China - and I leaped to conclusions from there.

For the older generation, ha, but the younger generation has higher expectations.

Tons of dorms in the US still have no air conditioning.

imagine some place hotter than Atlanta without AC. That damn Yangtze river line: the north of it gets heat in the winter, the south of it gets AC in the summer, it isn't as accurate as you'd think.

I can imagine it. Went to a university in Florida that had dorms without AC.

I don't think amenities are that big a factor in college choice. For people I know, price and prestige of the school are weighted way more than other factors such as location or quality of the school's buildings.

It depends on the environment you're in. At my college everyone came here because of the prestige (and generous financial aid). At my high school people chose schools based largely on size, location, perceived fun, etc. if they couldn't get in to a top tier school. In my hometown people chose based on closeness to home, whether it was a party school or not, etc.

Amenities, even granite countertops, are at least of some actual personal use. Applications to a local college apparently doubled last year because their football team was on a winning streak.

Some people treat college like a four year vacation with planned activities. In which case the price is really quite cheap.

Looking back, I was guilty of this attitude at various times.

As a typical kid in the US, it's virtually impossible to ever go anywhere on your own without getting a car. And the chances are high you won't get a car anyway, because your parents can't afford to buy you one and, well, how exactly are you supposed to afford your own car as a jobless kid?

The only way is to get a minimum wage job and suck out a considerable amount of time from your high school studies and extracurriculars, all just to have a car. But educational achievement is ranked very, very high in priority in the US, so a lot of kids who understand that are going to choose to just forgo the car completely if their parents can't get them one.

To top it off, most kids in the US have, up until college, never experienced a walkable microcosm of society, outside of shopping malls. The idea of living in this little walkable world is so exciting that it becomes worth the cost. It's like taking a (short) lifetime of observing all the systemic problems with American life and then finding a new little world that recognizes all those problems and fixes every one.

In that sense, in the US, going off to college comes with this tremendous sense of relief, where you feel like finally, for the first time, life is starting to make sense. Almost all college students will ask themselves repeatedly on first matriculating, "why the hell wasn't life like this in high school and earlier?"

There is no need to feel guilty.

In general, many people need to detox from a childhood that lacked sufficient freedom to explore and become a full human being. Their internal programming then takes college and its new freedom as an opportunity to rectify that. It is quite a reasonable approach given our K-12 schooling setup and its intense control of children's time during the day.

It's kinda too bad that the expected path is to go right to college after high school. Because,although it can be a lot of fun, it's an awfully expensive way to "detox" if one isn't even taking advantage of the school and its resources. I might have been more productive being a ski bum for a couple of years before heading to school.

I think the year-off strategy is a good one. Too many people go back to grad school almost just for a re-do. 18 is too young to pick a career - I switched majors twice in the first two years.

I want to formulate a better set of options and incentives for my kids. To start, I could chip in for some tuition if they take a year off, or just minimally support them for that year as long as they leave home. The pull of peers (let's go to college together even though we'll drift apart after!) is strong, though.

gp may be on to something about detox. I'll have to allow them experiences growing up (provided they don't get taken by CPS).

18 is too young to pick a career

Pretty much everyone throughout human history, outside of recent Western history, would probably disagree with that. By 18 you were expected to be a self-supporting adult.

I think 18 is too young to pick a career only if you wait until you're 18 to start thinking about it. If you're encouraged and allowed to explore your interests earlier, you should have a pretty good idea of what you'd like to do by the time you're 18.

After further discussion offline, I came to that conclusion too. Before college, I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to do that had no connection to reality or my temperament ("Building spacecraft is like model rockets, right?"). Doing practical work and going on field trips gave me the real taste of careers, and if I had gotten some of that in high school or sooner, yeah, I would've been looking at schools based on the major I ended up with, and done better, faster.

I was given free reign to explore my interests, but maybe not actively encouraged, especially where you need to go meet professionals in their workplace. I'll try to correct that with the next generation. A car factory or construction site can be just as fun as the zoo.

And if work is fun and part of a balanced diet, there's less need to 'detox' from life for a year, or four years.

I think people have a completely idealized idea of the past. Yes, by 18 you had a career: you were a farmer or you'd been an apprentice for some time. Your formal education had probably been over for quite a few years. That was 100 years ago, 60 years you would've gone to a trade school.

Youd also probably be living with your parents until you got a job, often longer, depending on how well off you were.

Sure, if your career is subsistence farmer.

While you obviously have the freedom to do what you wish, I got the impression that colleges are going further along the path of hand-holding to cater to those who can't/won't make that K-12 transition. From speaking with my coworkers who were alumni of the university I was attending and were of the same major, it really seemed like the rigor disappeared. The amount of times a professor would extend deadlines, cull portions of an assignment, or just flat out cancel it because of students complaining became enough to drive me away from classes. In several other courses, we had adjuncts that were former K-12 educators and they frequently treated us as their former students. In fact, the final straw that lead to me leaving the university entirely was an incident where I was castigated by an adjunct German professor for the atrocity of discretely pulling out my phone in order to translate a word so I could properly ask a question of the professor. This was only a few years ago, and having tutored a few friends through the years, I have a good idea of the state of things. They haven't changed.

I upvoted this comment because this is all very true and gets to be very expensive as enrollment rates increase, which was also mentioned in the article.

But, despite all of this expense, I don't feel like I got a great education while I attended a public university. My classes were taught by grad students and adjuncts in 400 person auditoriums.

I ended up transferring to a small private school about the size of my high school. The tuition was about four times what I was paying at a public school (though I didn't pay near that much out of my own pocket) and the quality of teaching was night and day.

One thing I've noticed about American universities compared with universities in other countries (Japan, Korea, UK), is that almost every decent American university I've seen seems to be really well-maintained, in that the campus is very clean, in good repair, frequently renovated, etc, even the out-of-the-public-eye spaces (grad student offices and the like).

Japanese and Korean universities, on the other hand, are often rather shabby, even the top-tier ones (Toudai etc). They're still perfectly fine places for the intended purpose, mind you, just maybe a little worn.

I dunno how much of a part money maintenance and construction play in university costs, but I imagine it's labor-intensive, and so not exactly cheap...

This. It basically holds true for any product: price doesn't increase linearly as quality goes up.

I go to college in U.S., and a lot friends of mine attend one of the best universities in China. I have the freedom to take practically any course in the university, and my friends basically know what their four years look like before freshman year. I never worry about finding seats in the library, and my friends sometimes have to camp outside before it opens near finals. I have plenty of resources (Profs, TAs, advisors, peer tutors) when I get stuck, whereas my friends mostly have to figure it out on their own. I've been living in singles since freshman year, and my friends have dorm rooms that are slightly larger than mine, but with four students living in it. They don't even have shower in the dorm and have to go to a communal facility. Their bathrooms are dark, dirty and don't have bowls (squat toilets), while ours are some of the cleanest I've seen.

On the other hand, I pay almost $50k in tuition alone each year, while my friends pay <$1000. I pay $8k a year for housing, and my friends pay ~$150, per year

I went to college in Sweden and had all that you had, I didn't pay anything. I received about 1000-1500$ a month for attending school from the government.

I know Europe is a diverse place, but I've studied at three universities in Europe (Germany and France) and at each of them I often had problems with computer access due to the labs being used for classes. This was an issue even as a graduate student.

Access to professors outside of class was also difficult. Where I was at in Germany, the professors would have about 4 hours per week scheduled where they were available for help or questions. At the end of each open-hours block they would go out into the hall and tell the 5-10 people waiting in line to see them that they would have to come back in a couple days. Compare this to the university I was at in the US where professors would practically beg students to come talk to them about homework assignments, lectures, etc.

I also had much greater autonomy in the US when it came to lab work (and course selection as well). They trusted us to use the equipment. As an undergrad in the US we were shown how to use an SEM and then left alone with it to play around with it and try different options, scan different objects, etc. For the SEM lab I had as a graduate student in France we watched a technician use the machine and tell us about what you can do with it and that was it. I felt like we were being treated like little kids. There weren't even any machine shops, 3d printers, soldering irons, etc. available for students to use.

In the experience that I had, the US university had much higher quality facilities than the ones I was at in Europe (I'm not talking about the lecture quality here). Certainly, one could argue that the increased cost isn't worth the increased quality, but I did notice a big difference between those four schools.

My experience at a State School in the US sounds more like your European experiences than your US experience.

I like the way Sweden does many things, but:


It's political suicide in the US to raise taxes in any significant way, and so we suffer through the nonsense we've got.

It's important to put numbers in perspective. Every US citizen spends $98k over their expected lifetime on the military, for example. An average Swedish citizen spends $46k on state funded university and higher education over their expected lifetime (which is only slightly higher).

That said, it should be obvious that the Sweden model doesn't suit conditions in the US (one is a small country in Northern Europe, one is almost a continent), but one should be able to discuss these things without the straw man of how state spending is impossible in the US. After all, military spending is possible, and that is probably the most socialistic system of them all, in the sense that it is state planned and politically mandated.

If you look at the historic context of military vs. education spending, I don't think it's a straw man at all to point the difficulty of raising non-defense spending. In fact, the difficulty of raising taxes in the US is just put in more stark lighting when in perspective of the amounts spent on the military vs. everything else.

I'm not saying state spending is impossible, just that raising it for non-military items is exceedingly difficult. That's not the only reason why the US university system is worse in x way than y country's, but when we're discussing public funding of universities we have to acknowledge the political and fiscal realities of trying to do something about it. I say that when accounting for those realities and the difference in public funding levels for education and other programs, it's no surprise that we have students in debt.

Great datapoint! Source?

I took the military speding figures from worldbank.org, and higher education spending from the Swedish national budget for 2015. Population and life expectancy figures from Wikipedia.

Sweden also doesn't have universities that match up to the US when it comes to a ~$50k tuition tier. $50,000 per year is a lot, and buys you access to the best universities on earth, most of which are in the US. Harvard's tuition is around $44,000 for example.

Sweden is a country with the population of New York, but have one (sometimes two) universitites in a global top ten ranking of their respective subjects. So if you must compare to something US, do it with a large city.


Sweden has two universities in the top ~100. Boston has three. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh have two, mostly in the top 50.

That's because your source is coarse grained. Look at a list of specific subjects, in my example medicine (and an old list of maritime biology institutions, hence "sometimes"), and you'll find the counter examples.

But hey, I'm cherrypicking data here, so it's not relevant to anything else than as a counter data point to a very broad and wrong statement.

How about don't compare a European nation to a large city, do it to the US equivalent: A state.

While this might be true for maybe population size or territory, the govermental structure is completely different. ..also there are huge cultural differences (language; diff. social path dependencies etc.)

I don't think the similarities justify comparing US states to European countries.

No, you shouldn't. European nation states bear little resemblance to federal states, neither historically, culturally or economically.

The point was not that comparisons between states and cities are somehow more valid, but to illustrate that the differences in higher education are most likely due to the vast population difference.

but obviously university rankings are only weakly related to the quality of undergrad education. US universities are the "best" at research... not hard to understand

Well you get $350 "for free", the rest is a loan.

To give a comparison closer to the States, in Quebec (Canada), I paid about 5k (3 semester per year, one as paid internship) in tuition plus ~10k for a ~450ft^2 apartment. Obviously I will pay all my life in taxes, but that make higher education much more accessible and less intimidating that it could be elsewhere.

As a modern western state, the main source of GDP require college educated workforce, so it probably make sense to invest "other peoples money" into it. It is of course totally debatable if this is good or not. Not all college degree will yield a direct return on investment (/whisper social science, art, education) but those people are (mostly) required anyway to provide services to the others. This is a society choice. Some places let education be driven by the market while other see it as a public service (same for health care, electricity or running water). As this example show, there can be inefficiencies even when university are run like corporations.

> As a modern western state, the main source of GDP require college educated workforce, so it probably make sense to invest "other peoples money" into it.

Absolutely. There are some issues though with brain drain. Look at Germany, free education. Or Norway, you pay like $500 a year. I have friends who went to study there and then left and never came back.

And it's not inexpensive. Here in the Netherlands we pay about $2k a year on tuition, but the gov pays the uni an additional $10k or so per student. And then the unis get various extras from the government, so they have about $15-20k to work with for tuition per student. In any of these three countries, most or all of that comes from the government, who don't have a way of keeping that investment locked in to their countries.

Which is why a lot of countries nowadays keep tuition high, but create language scholarships. Study in Korea? Gotto pay up. Unless you want us to pay, great, we'll even pay you a monthly stipend, but you need to take this 4 year Korean language course and it's intensive, if you fail, you lose your scholarship.

4 years later, that person will be speaking Korean and tied to Korea for the rest of their lives. Even if they won't live their, they might go back to Europe and do business with Korean companies, make investments, etc. That's a much more sensible investment for them.

The second issue is that of cashflow. Investments are great, but paying $50k into an 18 year old, will start to pay off maybe a decade or two later in taxes on average. That's an easy decision for Sweden, it's a tricky decision when you're dealing with austerity measures, unemployment, failing healthcare, crime etc right now, something a lot of countries are facing.

But yeah beyond those issues, I'm damn glad I live in Europe, my education has been amazing. $10k student debt, got a 4y degree here, and did an exchange, a minor and summer school in 3 other countries (Quebec, too by the way :)!

i think that's why you can't have western governments investing in students, because they don't have any money.. in fact my friend and i have applied to this yc batch with our idea for a 'vc firm for people' where you pay for students university education in return for a % of their annual income (i.e. in return for taxing them).

Private debt slavery! This is a terrible idea. Moreover, your cost of capital cannot possibly be lower than the interest rates paid by Western governments.

haha u have hit the nail on the head re: our bad pr problem..usually people go for indentured servitude rather than all the way to slavery though haha...

we think equity>debt for students because a) in bad times your debt is lower (% of income vs flat payment) and b) longer time scale allows transfer consumption from middle-age to years immediately after graduation

re: western government interest rates that's probably true, the uk has lost a lot of money on their loans which have very nice terms & conditions.. the US market still has a large private loans component which we think we can beat (for reasons above). to be honest though we are probably thinking more about the developing world (india, china etc.) where student loan financing isn't as available (particularly true at a graduate level)

finally, the x-factor is on the investor side where we can allow investors to bet on industries without having to be on a specific company because the income stream of someone working in a given industry is a better long-term proxy than a company in that industry (particularly if it's a new industry)..

Some might even argue more run-down buildings allow for better science. When you believe your building is cramped and in bad shape, changing its form slightly to get an experiment working is more acceptable. Cutting holes in walls, exposing beams to add supports for chemical reactors, and general experimentation. At least that's the idea behind the fetishization of Building 20 at MIT[1-3].

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/1998/03/31/science/last-rites-for-a-p... [2] http://newsoffice.mit.edu/1998/b20main-0401 [3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Building_20

The author of the article is from Boulder... they just started on a $63M rec center renovation and they have a pool in the shape of a buffalo. There are only 30,000 students, so right there is $2,000 per student on a portion of the facilities that isn't involved in teaching.


It an expense, not necessarily a cost. Their property values just rose for example. Over time the equipment ages which leads to breaking, and replacement because it's not state of the art anymore. If you expect it to last 20 years, then you can write off 1/20th every year, which are your actual costs. Meaning it's $100 per student per year, which is reasonably cheap because those are essentially your costs to have state of the art equipment available to you every year. Things like heating & lighting, employees, cleaning etc is added to that, but it's mostly independent from renovation as you had to pay that anyway before you renovated. It might go up a bit, it might go down because of more sustainable engineering for example.

There's a lot more to it, of course, don't get me wrong. But $2k per student for non-teaching isn't quite the truth, either.

But I think the notion of building decent public facilities and amenities is one of the best things we ought to do. It sadly doesn't happen often. But universities do it, libraries, rec centers, I think it's great. It has to happen in a smart way, of course, I don't support some of the ridiculous over the top projects you sometimes see. A pool in the shape of a buffalo, ugh, great example right there. Sadly it's often in the pursuit of collegiate sports and not really providing awesome amenities and facilities to the general student body. Reminds me of the piece about Alabama in this great Last Week Tonight [0]

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pX8BXH3SJn0

If you're not planning to sell property, high property values are bad because they just increase your taxes. There's no upside.

A rec center lasts for more than a year doesn't it? I'm sure there are (will be) ongoing maintenance costs, but I doubt they are also $63M/year.

A $63M rec center doesn't maintain itself. I'm sure the yearly operational costs are much larger than what they had before as well.

Economists sometimes talk about different types of quality: actual quality and perceived quality. There has been a lot of spending that has been directed toward perceived quality at American Universities. That includes a lot of new buildings, a lot of maintenance, etc. In a certain way, it becomes a race to spend more. The more you spend, the better students you can attract, the better your status is and your alumni and industry donations are. All of this spending to entice 16 and 17 year olds to choose your university over another based on a cool study area, the prospect of free concerts, lots of student life staff to talk to and handle your needs, etc.

In the United States, university education is extremely hierarchical. If you're fairly well off (parents earning $120,000/year), you can easily get a free education at one of the top schools. However, go to a school closer to 25th and there will be fees even for those whose parents earn less. I don't think most countries third-level systems are nearly as hierarchical. As such, it's a big deal for universities to compete for students (and students to compete for universities) in the US.

A lot of that probably comes from American universities being completely independent of one another. I mean, sure, Imperial College London is independent from University College London, but they're ultimately responsible to the UK government. I don't think unbridled spending to court students from one government institution to another (via perceived, not actual quality) would really be looked upon well.

To be fair, the lack of coordination can also put American universities in an awkward position. As soldiers came home and took advantage of the GI Bill, universities greatly expanded their capacity to teach them. As that large increase in students dropped off, universities were left with a lot of excess capacity. A lot of the increase in spending can be traced back to that period as universities tried to keep their enrolment steady.

Ultimately, American universities are a combination of school and summer camp. Generally students live in university-owned dorms, they eat in university-owned cafeterias, and go to university-sponsored social events. All of that costs money, but in a competitive environment where students travel across the country to go to the university they perceive as best (that let them in), those costs are necessary from the university's perspective.

Rose-colored version: Competition! Freedom! Murrica!

On a more serious note, it's also worth noting that 16/17 year-old students aren't making their decisions in a vacuum. Parents may be on the actual campus once (if at all) before the student attends, and I think that perceived quality measures are as much targeted at winning parental approval via first impressions as they are targeted at winning over high school kids on cool factor.

>If you're fairly well off (parents earning $120,000/year), you can easily get a free education at one of the top schools.

It is great that Stanford was able to offer free tuition (not free education) to whatever portion of the 2,144 students they admitted this year had family incomes under $125,000 and "typical assets" but it is definitely not easy to get into Stanford. As a family with $140,000 in income and what I would consider to be typical assets (modest home, minimal retirement and college savings) we received no financial aid offers of any kind and were expected to be able to pay $65-70,000 per year at private colleges.

Luckily, my daughter found an excellent out-of-state public college that she loves and should graduate debt-free. Unfortunately, too many of her high school friends fell into the private school trap and are now either paying outrageous tuition or are stuck in a mediocre in-state public school.

To any parents now making college visits, ignore those press releases, insist that you visit as many public campuses as you do private ones, and that your children apply to as many public schools as they do private schools and you won't live to regret it.

There is some evidence that where you actually attend university doesn't matter. This paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics suggests that what matters is where you apply, not where you actually end up going: http://cdn.theatlantic.com/static/mt/assets/business/dalekru...

Wow, that's steep! I would expect a dual-income family making about $140k total to be able to pay $25k/year for schooling without making other lifestyle adjustments, but 65k-70k for one student -- that's outrageous!

Those are the things that administrators care about. Can't bring in more money if you don't have good-looking brochures. Like a lot that administrators do (including replicate themselves), it's considered a marketing expense. Because building reputation takes too much time.

The short version: "A major factor driving increasing costs is the constant expansion of university administration."

At the university where a friend works, a huge amount of the staffing expenditure is on (rarely well-run) IT. Another big chunk of the staff is employed to essentially wrangle the part-time faculty who are on short contracts and don't stay for more than one or two years.

I think that in many cases universities have turned to hiring staff to circumvent many of the political problems of trying to manage professors (edit: tenured people are a bitch to manage and will resist any and all changes in most departments, in case this wasn't clear before). It's a poor solution but in some areas it's the only way to make changes.

The IT, the slow rate of change among faculty, the part-timers, etc, could optimistically be put down to changing student and market demands. Pessimistically much of it could be put down to an institutional desire to have central control.

Someone was arguing to me recently that this has all come about because of some court cases in the 80s and 90s. They claim that one case in particular, between Notre Dame and the faculty, was a turning point.

The story has been related to me like this: Traditionally universities were heavily influenced by the faculty, who had big sway over big decisions. This all came to a head in the 80s when faculty and the administration disagreed over some big issue (like who should be the next president, I believe). The faculty and administration went to court, and the court ruled that the faculty were employees and the administration, essentially, had absolute power and could appoint who they wanted.

This precedent drastically changed how universities were run, and since then faculty has basically been eviscerated (both from a power standpoint and a pay standpoint, ala adjuncts) and universities are now run like businesses (top down management vs. a more distributed/democratic form previously). I haven't been able to find the court case or citations to back this up (closest is a book[1]), but it wouldn't surprise me if true. It would explain a lot that has happened, and if you combine it with other factors like government backed student loans, it's no surprise universities are cash cows run by feudal lords.

[1] https://books.google.es/books?id=PiPktdWvGvkC

What's responsible for the constant expansion of university administration?

Yeah this piece certainly did not explain the real reason college tuition costs so much.

Partially, regulatory compliance.

What percentage is this relative to say, football coaches?

No quantitative idea, but as disgusting as the salaries for football coaches (N.B., depending on the school, it may be a budget separate from the academic enterprise), university presidents, &c. are, I would be willing to bet that they are dwarfed by the army of bureaucrats handling what I termed regulatory compliance.

On the research side, off the top of my head you've got grant administrators, institute review boards, research integrity office, postdoc affairs. You've also got "Title IX administrators". Accepting federal funding takes a lot of work.

The worthiness of the services the bureaucrats are providing I leave as an exercise to the reader, but I think it's problematic that the people making the regulations are not the ones paying the bills when it comes time to comply with the regulations.

> Accepting federal funding takes a lot of work. I think we're getting closer to the real reason there ...

Part of it is also a social signaling factor. Because eduction is a superior good and a positional good, there's pressure for it to get ever more expensive (at least on paper). After all, if the Johnsons' kids are going to a $40,000/year school, you want to make sure your little darling goes to at least a $45,000/year school.

The secret is that many elite colleges give such generous financial aid that only the extremely wealthy are paying full freight. But it still makes the college looks good to have an astronomically high sticker price.

> The secret is that many elite colleges give such generous financial aid that only the extremely wealthy are paying full freight. But it still makes the college looks good to have an astronomically high sticker price.

Unfortunately, this is not at all true for grad school. I'm from India and a large swathe of my friends from college are studying in the US without any sort of aid.

What subjects are your friends studying?

I did my PhD in physics in the USA, and for all of my fellow physics grad students, we not only had free tuition but we were given jobs (they didn't pay much but it was enough to live on). Ie, students were either given Research Assistant roles from their Adviser's funding, or Teaching Assistant roles by the department. The lucky ttudents with fellowships didn't need to teach at all and could focus full time from day one on research. (Of course this gives those fellowship students more ability to write papers early in their career, boosting their ability to win more fellowships later on, creating academias's own 1%/99% inequality, but that's a separate issue).

This was physics, and my understanding is that this is the case for most of the sciences.

He probably means masters degree. I was looking at a few and couldn't find any that were fully funded. This was in stem programs at top schools.

It's extremely rare for a masters degree to be funded. Most PhD programs are, because PhD students provide cheap labor to the college in the form of TA and lab technician work.

The OP keeps talking about the tuition increases. But as far as I could tell, the OP was considering only, call it, tuition list prices. But, with scholarships, various forms of financial aid, etc., maybe often the list price is not the actual price, that is, what the school actually receives from the student (and their family). So, the OP didn't explain how much the actual price has changed over the decades.

E.g., recently Stanford announced that the tuition will be $0.00 for any student whose family earns less than $125,000 a year. Sure, maybe the list price tuition at Stanford is ballpark $50,000 a year. But the actual price is sometimes zero. And some scholarships also cover room and board making the actual price negative.

It was long the case that the tuition for a student paid only ballpark 1/3rd of the full school budget per student. So, maybe what's happened is that the schools decided to set the list price to be the full cost per student, maybe plus some, and have students from wealthy families actually pay that price. Then nearly all the rest of the students get a significantly lower actual price, maybe even $0.00.

Further, given that there are student loans available to cover the list price, then maybe just go ahead and charge list price for students using student loans.

Then we have the issue of, with so many students getting student loans, maybe they are not very good students and wouldn't even have been accepted at the school back decades ago. Maybe. Or, if some money sources are eager to pay or loan list price for some not very good students, then colleges can be tempted to go ahead and take the list price easy money and let the students attend the classes.

I'm not sure I understand what you are trying to say. But I challenge your argument that schools are listing the full cost per students.

One reason I doubt current list price of tuition covers 100% of the cost per student for the vast majority of schools (which are public and receive state funding).

Students with student loans aren't bad students. Depending on you parents salary they might not qualify for any other type of need based financial aid except student loans. Also, merit base aid is limited and can't be extended to all students with academic standing that usually leads to them successfully completing college with high grades.

In the end, a large amount of students pay for college entirely with student loans and don't realize the cost until they are in repayment. They pay the list price and more due to other costs of going to college.

To successfully be able to pay for college without aid and loans a student today would need to have a full time job while students in the 1950-60... could generally pay the full amount with a summer job.

Edit: Also, price per students vary between faculties, a engineering student might cost 50K+ while a arts student would cost half or less of that. Some students end up subsidizing others.

Yes this article, and many others, employ the "sticker price fallacy" to advance their claims.

As David Leonhardt put it, tuition is like sticker prices at Joseph A. Bank "If you take Joseph A. Bank’s sticker prices literally, you don’t understand its business."


It didn't make sense to me until I read this:

from the article:

"Some of this increased spending in education has been driven by a sharp rise in the percentage of Americans who go to college."

from the comments:

"The money PER STUDENT was slashed. That is what matters for the cost to each student."… "This is an elaborate lie, to justify what is indefensible without the help of such lies."

Well the article disagrees with that claim, "Appropriations per student are much higher now than they were in the 1960s and 1970s, when tuition was a small fraction of what it is today." so I guess it would be time to go to the references/data if we had them.

Here you go. Data from the internet:

[1]"States are all over the map on their retreat from higher education. At one extreme are the two states that have managed to maintain their fiscal 1980 investment through 2011: Wyoming (+2.3 percent) and North Dakota (+0.8 percent).

But these are the exceptions. All other states have reduced their support by anywhere from 14.8 percent to 69.4 percent between fiscal 1980 and fiscal 2011."

This covers roughly the same time period as in the article. Only there is something different going on: state appropriations for higher education is going down.

[1] http://www.acenet.edu/the-presidency/columns-and-features/Pa...

This article seems to have gone out of its way to list a lot of aggregate numbers that increased while comparing it to per-student tuition.

Also, there could be more factors than just the increased percentage of people who go to college. The tuition increase could also include increased administrative costs or spending on extracurricular activities such sports. I know that when I was attending UC Davis, we saw an increase to pay for the new computer labs that were being installed.

The article mentioned the large increase in administrators.

Yes, but how large is that increase per student.

In 2011 21.0 million people where going to an undergraduate degree, in 1970 that was just 7.3 million. So from 1970 to now ~2.7 times as many people are getting an undergraduate degree. They are using some nebuslus 1960's number and inflation increased 7.93x from 1960 to now. 7.93 x ~3 = 23.79 x increase would have kept up per student.

Or roughly the government is spending less than 1/2 as much per student after adjusting for inflation. http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl?cost1=1&year1=1960&ye...

Yes this amorphous group of "administrators". Wonder why no article ever mentions the actual job titles/functions of these administrators? I suspect they are largely athletics-related, and by not providing details the authors can rely on readers to assume that these "administrators" are instead useless bureaucrats.

Are you arguing that tuition costs for everyone should rise so that there can be more athletics-related personnel?

I'm always suspicious when I read articles like this that claim to tell the "real story" when "everyone else" is lying, so I looked up the author:


> Campos is perhaps best known for his 2004 book The Obesity Myth (later published as The Diet Myth) which reviews medical research on the association between higher body mass and health. Campos's contentions that obesity is healthy were praised by some sociologists and critical theorists, and overwhelmingly criticized by medical, epidemiological, and statistical researchers with professional training in empirical research.

So he's a professional at this kind of manipulation.

I think a more interesting question is, how has the ROI of college changed over the past 40 years?

The cost has gone up much faster than inflation.

The number of people going to college has also risen dramatically. This means there are a lot more college educated peers competing with you in the workplace. This means that the college degree is not as rare, and thus has lower scarcity value.

Finally, I think it's quite possible the quality of the education has declined significantly in the past 40 years. When I was in college, almost 30 years ago, I was appalled at how the university focused and spent so much of its money on a losing football team (in a zero sum situation where the other schools were always going to be abel to massively outspend it and had larger pools of students to recruit from) ... and in the decline in the education. I remember sitting in a class and learning about how universities were started by tradesman who banded together and hired experts to teach them, and I thought "Man, I wish I could go to a school like that". Since then I've seen nothing but an increase in these efforts... I've see the quality of a CS degree (based on the people who I interview for jobs who have them) decline.

So the formula is: More Cost, Less Value, Lower Quality = Lower ROI.

If things don't turn around, at some point College will be a losing proposition.

Of course, this presumes that the education colleges give can be obtained elsewhere.

Which brings up another point MOOCs, and online access to open source frameworks have really changed things in the past 30 years. 30 years ago we were buying our compilers (CodeWarrior for life!) now they and our frameworks are open source and well documented. The books are cheaper-- $40 to Oreilley rather than $120 to the campus book store (or are my prices out of date?)

You can learn more modern technologies better than going to college and spending 4 years on Java and C++.

Then there's the MooCs. you can learn CS fundamentals by video, along with people all around the world.

I think we're close to that tipping point.

One criticism I have of education systems is that they structurally encourage only superficially studying content.

Let's take my compilers class as an example. I go to a 75 minute lecture 2 times a week and I do about 4 hours of homework a week. I do this over 18 weeks.

That's only roughly 120 hours of study over the course of a semester. That's only as many hours as most full time employees work every 3 weeks! And the sad thing is, I imagine if I spent 3 weeks reading a compiler book, reading though the source of lex and yacc, and implementing some kind of basic compiler using them, I'd be a much better programmer than what we're doing-- implementing a C compiler for MIPS in java, using a shitty lex library and only implenting the parts the professor thinks is important.

This brings me to another point. Programmers are necessarily autodidacts because shit changes incredibly fast. You can't be a one trick pony. So if we're pushing kids through these incredibly formulaic methods of learning, what are we really preparing them for? A life of being an enterprise code monkey? The student who taught themselves anything, even if they are missing a few core details, are more equipped to fix those gaps in their understandings.

I did a hackathon a couple weeks ago that had a sort of business spin on it. There was this group of 4 guys that made a college choosing application based off your GPA, as a desktop java application with a GUI that had background images and looked like an early 2000s keygen program.

The thing is, I have absolutely no doubt that these guys are good students and they'll probably find an alright job out of school. But all they know is java development.

I think that students that want to be more than that probably shouldn't go to school.

Here's a question to you: if I handed you a résumé, without a bachelor's degree, but instead included my github profile and a list of books I've read cover to cover and some open source contributions, am I going to get the salary I am worth?

> Let's take my compilers class as an example. I go to a 75 minute lecture 2 times a week and I do about 4 hours of homework a week. I do this over 18 weeks. That's only roughly 120 hours of study over the course of a semester. That's only as many hours as most full time employees work every 3 weeks!

The comparison doesn't seem fair. First, I suppose you have others classes at the same time. And if you don't, you're free to do additional work on your own. In any case, hard concepts take time to sink in. You're better off learning this over a longer period of time.

Besides, don't think full time employees do meaningful intellectual work 8 hours a day. There are always a lot of distraction. And even when coding, it's not the same as writing tons of boilerplate code than understanding new complicated concepts.

> And the sad thing is, I imagine if I spent 3 weeks reading a compiler book, reading though the source of lex and yacc, and implementing some kind of basic compiler using them, I'd be a much better programmer than what we're doing

Are you sure that you'd be able to do that? supervised education helps you to pace yourself, focus on what is important and to keep motivated over the long run. The actual content is maybe the least important.

Besides, going through lex and yacc sources sounds like a huge waste of time for someone who wants to learn about compilation. There may be some value in this, but it should be last on your priority list.

> Are you sure that you'd be able to do that? supervised education helps you to pace yourself, focus on what is important and to keep motivated over the long run. The actual content is maybe the least important.

I'm 100% sure. The motivation is all there. Why would I be in this class if I had to be coaxed into learning about it?

I think I can learn more in one long sitting than piecing away at any given topic. That's my personal experience. Instead I get distracted taking 5 courses at once and learn comparatively little.

> Besides, going through lex and yacc sources sounds like a huge waste of time for someone who wants to learn about compilation. There may be some value in this, but it should be last on your priority list.

I'm sorry but no. Compared to what we're actually doing, it's far far far better.

What am I going to come away with from the class? I guess I'll be a rock star interviewer, but I don't think I'll be much else.

Implementing something using only common tools and doing it without any code from the instructor would certainly result in more skills moving forward.

"I'm 100% sure. The motivation is all there. Why would I be in this class if I had to be coaxed into learning about it?"

So then why aren't you going through the lex and yacc sources in addition to your compiler class work? It's not like you have to ask for permission.

Because I'm stretched thin by my 5 other courses and other projects.

The point I'm trying to make is that at least for me, I'd be much better off devoting myself to one topic for 3 weeks than spread over 18. That may just be me personally.

Maybe that's the best lesson college is teaching you. In your professional life, you'll have to deal with a lot of frustration working with other people in a way that you haven't chosen!! you have to make the best out of it.

> This brings me to another point. Programmers are necessarily autodidacts because shit changes incredibly fast. You can't be a one trick pony. So if we're pushing kids through these incredibly formulaic methods of learning, what are we really preparing them for? A life of being an enterprise code monkey? The student who taught themselves anything, even if they are missing a few core details, are more equipped to fix those gaps in their understandings.

depends where you go and what their objective is. some schools focus on teaching real-world tools. which is great for getting a job, but less useful because there are completely new tools every few years.

other places focus on the theory of it all so when you see "new" things, you already have the knowledge to understand the basics.

chances are your professor is cherry-picking the parts to implement because while you could fully implement all parts, the learning probably bleeds off quickly. Also, based on your calculations, assuming you take a full course-load (5 courses), 3 weeks * 5 = 15 weeks = ~3.5 months, which is roughly a semester.

sure, you could get an education without a school. nothing stopping you. but, ultimately, people put a value on the piece of paper, the connections can be valuable, and school does a good job of educating/exposing you to a lot of things in a fair amount of rigor in a decent amount of time.


> if I handed you a résumé, without a bachelor's degree, but instead included my github profile and a list of books I've read cover to cover and some open source contributions, am I going to get the salary I am worth?

Speaking as someone who makes hiring decisions, a strong Github profile means more to me than the school you went to or the degree you have. When I hire people, I care about their ability to get things done and their ability to self-direct far more than their ability to do well on tests. Experience drives salary, not the education line item on your resume.

Speaking as a twenty year old who didn't go to school and doesn't have a degree would you hire me - or at least consider me for an interview - based off my github here (https://github.com/philangist?tab=repositories). I am actually gainfully employed right now at a job I like a lot, but I sometimes worry that I might be pigeonholing myself due to my lack of a formal degree.

I'd certainly consider you for an interview (you show actual development ability and an understanding of some important concepts in your work, which is much more than many interviewees), but speaking frankly, the profile is a little weak - it consists mostly of experimental or toy stuff without any kind of evidence of real-world application, no tests, nothing that's been packaged up for use by other people. These aren't bad, by any means, but by themselves they aren't something I'd look at and say "I want this guy working for me".

You don't have a lot of collaborative work (read: contributions to existing projects) or original work that others are using, which is one of the things I look for in candidates. I'm not just interested in a candidate's ability to write code, but in how they write code in the context of large projects, how they produce deliverables for consumption by other developers and stakeholders. Your Github profile isn't just a chance to showcase your ability to write code, but a chance to showcase how you write code with other people involved. A candidate who is actively contributing pull requests to other projects is very interesting to me, because they demonstrate an ability to collaborate with other people on a codebase they didn't originate, which is obviously necessary in business.

Your commits are clean, though, which is very good. I see way too many candidates with message after commit message like "stuff" and "changes" (anecdotally, I've found this to be pervasive in newly-minted CS majors and academic repositories). That's a major negative for me, because it suggests a lack of desire or ability to communicate the essence of your work.

A strong history of open source participation and/or a strong history of development of a personal project that is actively used somewhere are the biggest things I look for, because they speak not just to your ability to write code, but your ability to ship deliverables. After that, I look at code quality (cleanliness/use of idioms/lack of obvious bugs or errors) and commit quality (how disciplined are you in your commits, how well do you communicate what each change is for). The lack of those things isn't a "no" for me, but their presence is a big "yes".

> ...the profile is a little weak - it consists mostly of experimental or toy stuff without any kind of evidence of real-world application, no tests, nothing that's been packaged up for use by other people.

This is definitely true. I generally put up small one off projects where I implement an idea I'm interested in, as opposed to long-term libraries or applications that are intended to be used by others. For the longest time I wasn't technically skilled enough to contribute to other people's code, but now I think it's more about a lack of time and interest for me. I'll definitely make a deliberate effort to collaborate and work on other people's projects going forward. I'm curious to know though, what do you mean when you say that I "show an understanding of some important concepts in [my] work"?

Writing a garbage collector and binary wire protocol client, even if they're just toys, show an understanding of how things work that is important. A depressing number of professional developers are basically just stacking code legos that someone else built on top of each other until an approximation of the right result comes out, and never get deeper than that. The fact that you've even attempted a mark-and-sweep garbage collector marks you as someone who isn't afraid to get their hands dirty. It's a good thing.

> implementing a C compiler for MIPS in java, using a shitty lex library

Interesting - when I took that course in the late 90s, I had to implement a java compiler for MIPS in C. With a shitty lex library, of course.

"Here's a question to you: if I handed you a résumé, without a bachelor's degree, but instead included my github profile and a list of books I've read cover to cover and some open source contributions, am I going to get the salary I am worth?"

Depends a whole lot on your GitHub profile. For example to determine compiler knowledge I would expect to see a basic compiler implemented end-end as well as a reasonable contribution to an existing compiler and a few write ups/design papers.

Repeat for the other 15 odd important areas of study, and add in a few internships etc to show you can work well as part of a team and yes I would certainly hire you and pay you well. But this amount of work will take 2-3 years in any case.

I'm never asked about my education.. Which has been handy as I don't have a college degree. I was fortunate and managed to kick-start my career after getting a foot in at a rather prominent company. Once the work history starts to establish you're pretty free to blaze your own path. That has been my own personal experience.

You still need some sort of equivalency in the mind of the people doing the hiring before the MooCs move in -- something to get them past the mindset that only people who go to college can perform the job. Businesses also need to stop auto filtering people who don't have a degree, and that's something that you'd actually have to fight for to get removed, meaning most hiring managers won't be arsed to take up that fight. Most sane places will realize that actual code is more indicative of skill than the degree (this is before you've met the person), and we thankfully have free tools to accomplish that goal.

It would be fine if college were something optional and there could be a carefree debate. The degree in America is quickly turning into something that is required for decent employment, but can give you a very difficult financial situation for a long time if the reward doesn't meet the cost.

Agreed. One thing people usually don't take into account when they talk about current College ROI is the opportunity cost. Especially at non-first tier private schools the opportunity cost must be considerable.

what they taught me in econ 1a:

1. limited supply (even when you count the fake for-profit schools)

2. increased demand (EVERYONE wants to go to college)

3. easy financing which increases 2. (student loans)

results in inflating prices.

not really sure what the mystery here is.

This is the fallacy in government providing low-cost loans to everyone. Unless the supply of colleges increases, it just ends up increasing demand for the same supply, driving up prices - and producing a boatload of graduates with mortgage-sized student loans. All on the assumption that the degree will give them increased earning power, which is increasingly unlikely in today's economy.

It's not just the fact that they're low-cost loans. They're almost zero-risk loans (you can not declare bankruptcy on student loans), which benefits lenders and encourages schools to increase prices.

Revenue per student (state appropriations + tuition) has been flat for 30 years. What's changed is the proportion of revenue that comes from tuition.

The article is about state schools though.

uh, what part of my post doesn't apply to state schools?

They're a government service, and are not - theoretically - supposed to charge market rates.

They still have to compete on everything from providing good enough facilities to paying professors enough to keep or acquire them. If you inflate half the market when it comes to salaries, the other half either has to compete or will lose all of its talent.

If X type of lab becomes standard at non-state schools, then all the state schools must build one too or suffer.

Going to plug Bill Gates' recommendation again. I enjoyed reading and thought the data was eye opening.


Someone needs to build a "spartan" college. Use the cheapest construction materials+. No sports teams++. No extracurricular activities+++. No degrees that aren't in STEM.++++

+ - Does the round glass section contribute to learning in some way? What am I missing? http://newsroom.unl.edu/releases/downloadables/photo/2012091...

++ - If your sports team starts to win, people will wonder why your crappy 10-year-old sports stadium hasn't been demolished and rebuilt. It's 10 years old already! We need at least 30% glass panel coverage on the exterior! Get with the times already!

+++ - You want a robotics club or a harry potter reading club or a javelin-throwing club? Fine, but find your own funding.

++++ - If you really think you're the gods' gift to mankind when it comes to ancient Egyptian art, then by all means, get admitted to an ivy-league-status establishment. The last thing the world needs are more junior-league art majors.

I wrote a post about this same issue a year ago. It's sad that debt is fueling the growth of administration staff.

Some interesting charts are here:


I would say quantitative easing has a lot to do too. It didn't create the broad inflation everyone expected. Instead some sectors went into high inflation: housing, stocks, tuition fees, etc.

The real reason college tuition costs so much=because they can!

(Most schools found that students/families will find ways to come up with the money. These schools will blame everyone, and everything, but they still raise tuition. When questioned, they brag about the scholarships. I understand some state schools, but really question schools like Haarvard with a billion/year coming in through endowments.)

    > For example, the military’s budget is about 1.8 times
    > higher today than it was in 1960, while legislative
    > appropriations to higher education are more than 10
    > times higher.
This isn't the relevant statistic. I'm going to guess that the size of the national student body has increased since 1960, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was by more than a factor of ten.

I'm not saying that therefore lack of government spending is the cause of high tuition, but this article dismisses it too quickly.

Well the article addresses that point like a paragraph or two later.

My father is a university administrator, and he told me this theory years ago, that the costs were due to excess bureaucracy.

What would be an example? What these administrators are doing anyway to destroy so much of value?

One of the big crimes of these administrators is that it's so hard to get accurate numbers when trying to have this debate. Has the funding per capita gone down proportionally to the tuition increase? Is the increase in administration and facilities proportional to the increase in enrollment?

We should all try to remember this because it's not what we've been told:

"What cannot be defended, however, is the claim that tuition has risen because public funding for higher education has been cut. Despite its ubiquity, this claim flies directly in the face of the facts."

as he admits, per capita funding has indeed fallen. the problem is an over expansion of higher education. what proportion of the population can really benefit from a full time residential degree course? much less than 50%

"Entrenchment of the bourgeoisie"

the same malady affects health care. corporate-itis

I find it interesting that the article takes every step except for the very last one.

The increase in public funding of universities has inflated the enrollment, decreased the quality of education, and increased the pricing by allowing sub-par schools to survive.

In any economic situation, an increase in the quantity of money trying to consume a restricted quantity of resources increases the price. This is an economic fact. How does the article simply make the point that the increase in public funding isn't why the costs have increased but not even bring up the correlation between the increase in funding and the costs going up??

If we have 100 apples of production a year at the current price, and someone comes along and gives people who want apples some money to buy apples, the apple seller can increase the price without much resistance. Everyone who wants apples pays more because the money in this market is inflated.

Government has inflated the market. As a 34 year old college senior about to graduate with honors, I see this every single day at school. The failure rates for the low levels classes is ~50% and even THAT is inflated because the teachers are frowned upon if they fail to pass students. When teachers fail to pass students, students drop out and the college stops getting money. So they string them along into higher and higher levels classes hoping they catch on and catch up. This has led to me being in 300-400 level computer science classes with people who have absolutely no business being in college at all, let alone anywhere near a computer.

They have no functional knowledge of computing, and have no chance of getting a job even if they manage to get through college with a C average.

Unfortunately, the higher level teachers bend to the lower capability in the class as well... I had a 425 advanced database class where the teacher told us that some people still had not managed to install mysql after the midterm...

The only reason kids were passing with C's is they were googling for answers on the open-laptop tests.

By subsidizing the marketplace, the government is allowing schools that should close or be radically reformed to continue chugging along.

Another tangental issue is college sports. Colleges can play all sorts of games with the way money is spent on college sports and athletes. Companies can donate huge sums of money for sports complexes that are suppose to benefit the entire student body, but the athletes at my school have a separate gym with high end amenities where the regular students use a cheaper gym with normal gym equipment. I pay for classes, but people who run faster than me get in for free, get easy A classes, and get high end amenities. They get free food, special athlete lodging, and the list goes on and on. All of this is coming out of the general coffers.

While they have both hot whirlpools and cold tanks to aid in their workout recovery, I'm in a "computer science" building rented off campus, with no place to plug in a power cord.

I'm really shocked to see the NYTimes go as far as they did. Certainly, the article will be met with spite from the left as well as the right.

time to take action:

kill -9 all_administrative_positions

Do you even know what these administrative positions are? I would love to see a breakdown of these, if you have a source.

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