Trustees | Costs

Education Frontlines: Making college affordable

SALINA POST   |  February 13, 2019 by John Richard Schrock

Last week, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) released the new website: It provides data and graphs based on the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and includes all private and public colleges and universities that participate in Title IV student aid programs. For each school, it displays the current cost of tuition and fees as well as average aid that students receive. It breaks down administrative and instructional costs per student, although it only covers the years 2009 to 2016.

The ACTA site shows money trends but does not probe into the reasons for rapid increases that nearly match exorbitant rate hikes made by pharmaceutical companies. While the percentage of high school graduates attending college has increased, state funding has decreased. Rates also went up faster than inflation simply because there was little to hold them down. But this last year, tuition has leveled off at many schools due to declining resident and foreign student populations.

The ACTA site unfortunately shows graduation-in-four-years rates under the continuing assumption that a student should graduate in four years. But, on average, over 60 percent of college students change majors at least once. That makes 5–7 years the “graduate on time” reality. And for some students, later graduation was extended by the exorbitant cost of education and the need to work full time.

But one obvious factor from the ACTA graphs is administrative glut. Some of this may be driven by the increased burden of reporting to governmental and accrediting agencies. But there has been an even greater glut of employees for both instructional technology (IT) support and marketing that cannot be parsed from the general graphs. Meanwhile, there has been a shift from tenured faculty to cheap part time adjuncts.

The IT glut is recent. Before 1990, few staff were needed to maintain and repair equipment. Today, the IT staff often exceeds the largest academic department in size. And they are kept busy continually migrating the campus offices and classrooms to the newest state-of-the-art equipment. Under the illusion that “you can’t teach tomorrow’s students with today’s technology” and warnings to “don’t fall victim to aging technology,” administrators spend large sums on digital media that become obsolete in 2–3 years. “Learning designer” teckies are hired to assist faculty in modernizing their courses, and usually not at the request of faculty.

Dormitories, lounges, cafeterias, libraries and classrooms are continually remodeled to appear modern and futuristic, greatly increasing the cost of room-and-board and student fees. This is both an attempt to keep up with neighboring institutions and also to market to a shrinking “customer base.”  And that last phrase points to a big money pit: the corporatization of higher education or chasing after the student as customer for their tuition dollars.

Today, higher education puts substantial money into advertising to draw students away from other schools. It has not reached the level of the pharmaceutical industry, where 9 out of 10 companies spend more on advertising than on drug research. But it is time to ask why we allow public schools to spend money advertising for students, a cost the students pay back in higher tuition.       

On campuses across the country, I often see lights and ceiling fans turned on in empty rooms where classes are finished for the day. Paper is often wasted. Conservation of resources is rare. Frugality will not save great amounts of money but it would be an indication to economically poorer students that faculty care and are trying to keep costs down.

If I was a high school graduate today, I could not attend college. This cost increase has far exceeded inflation. Today’s crisis in student debt was unthinkable in the 1960s when only the top third of high school graduates attended college. I attended a state university for $8 a semester hour, and that was mostly covered by a $100 state scholarship provided each semester to all students in the state with high grades. My family did not take out loans but they could save up for the $300 per semester room-and-board. And I covered incidental expenses working as an assistant for 50 cents an hour. Today, no part time jobs and few full time jobs can cover the least expensive public college tuition.

My education was good because I had small classes where my professors were highly talented and knew us personally. Today, expensive digital devices isolate students from such professors. And luxury dormitories and continuous renovations do nothing to improve education. I was fortunate to attend college when I could afford to be a student, and not become a deep-in-debt “customer.”   


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