Let me begin with a remarkably true statement—a statement very few can successfully argue against: college is expensive, and it’s not getting cheaper.
According to Bloomberg, between 1985 and 2013—a mere 28 years—the average cost of tuition has risen 538 percent. Interestingly, the cumulative increase in inflation over the same time period shows a much more manageable number: 118 percent.
So what drives the cost of college tuition up at a pace exceedingly greater (nearly five times) than the inflation rate? Many answers exist, but here’s one possibility: college is fortified with immense federal funding; college is federally subsidized.
Education presents itself as a commodity worth the government’s investment for a few reasons: An educated citizenry drives the economy, creates practical and sometimes lethal (for the military) technological innovations and helps sustain an influential role on the international political stage. Education (from a governmental perspective) appears to be worth the investment; with education comes national success.
The national government’s increased funding of higher education began in 1965 when Lyndon Johnson signed—at his alma mater, of course—The Higher Education Act of 1965 into law. The law, among other things, created Stafford Loans. Stafford Loans come in two forms: subsidized (the government pays the accrued interest) and unsubsidized (the individual pays the interest).
The loans aimed to create greater opportunity for the middle and lower class by offering needs-based loans to potential students. If the act aimed to increase college enrollment, it did just that. Between 1965 and 2005, college enrollment rose nearly 300 percent.
As college enrollment increased, so too did the national student debt and the available funds for American colleges and universities; with more money available to institutions—a direct result of federal loans—institutions of higher education could be less fiscally responsible. As student enrollment increased, institutions of higher education were guaranteed more reliable sources of financial support; with a solid flow of government-backed income, institutions began investing in more aesthetic—not educational—commodities.
Essentially, tuition could swell and enrollment would still expand thanks to federal spending—commodification became the staple of higher education.
On our own campus—a university resembling more of a country club than an institution of learning—we witness the aesthetically pleasing aftermath (not aftermath in the sense that the fiscally irresponsible spending has stopped) of the federal subsidization of the American university. Tuition money funds the landscaping, the multi-million dollar fitness center and the construction of lavish new facilities, but these luxuries all come with a substantial price tag. If higher education was only the bare bone necessities in the past, today it is an insatiable glutton layered with fat—what began as a noble idea (higher education for more) quickly digressed into institutional gluttony.
As more money continues to feed the increasingly fiscally irresponsible American colleges and universities, future students can expect to see even higher tuition rates.
I do not purport to be above the fiscal irresponsibility, (I often utilize many of the aforementioned resources I condemn as extras) but I do realize they are extras we can all do without.
A college education is worth paying for—it is the excess I worry about.