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Dr. Robert Weisbuch

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Less Than Zero: The True Cost of College

Posted: 07/23/2012 2:33 pm

I've been a college-tuition-paying parent and a tuition-charging college president. As a parent, I gasped at the bills. As a president, I wondered how I could possibly make ends meet. I've seen it from both sides now, and so let me provide you with a New Jersey response to the complaint that college costs too much.

Shaddup. Or, borrowing from the Bronx, Fugetaboutit. This is the best bargain you are ever going to enjoy. Send in that tuition check with a Cheshire-cat grin because higher ed is your bowl of cream at a skimmed cost.

First, choice and competition. There are thousands of colleges and universities of every imaginable kind in every burg in the United States -- and at every price level. The choice is dazzling. Compare it to the number of bar soaps or car models, versions of Beethoven's Seventh or religions. It's a buyer's bazaar, and its spectacular variety is one reason it's the only aspect of our educational system that is the envy of the rest of the world. The real best: no other nation comes close. That's refreshing for once.

It's also a buyer's market. The status-conscious neighbors may have tricked you into thinking Junior must compete to get into the top few prestige colleges or universities, but below this very high line, and often offering every bit as good an educational experience, exist the other 95 percent of institutions that are more anxious about attracting enough students than about picking a chosen few. And especially at the more expensive privates, you can bargain aggressively for your price because the competition for students is fierce.

Speaking of price, there is retail and net, and almost no one pays retail. Most students are eligible for one or another form of student aid, and at many universities as much as half of tuition revenues get recycled as scholarships. Add to that the donated scholarships and the hefty sums that come from that savings account called endowment, and even full-pays get more than they give. A typical college or university will supplement its annual expenditures with perhaps another 20 percent from the endowment, and that is a bonus for all students.

Once all of that happens, the low cost of college is nothing short of extraordinary. According to figures compiled in 2011 by the College Board Trends in College Pricing and referenced by the well-regarded expert Sandy Baum in the Spring 2012 ACE Presidency journal, once you figure in all the aid, the average yearly tuition at a public university is $2,500 and then $13,000 at the typical private college.

Okay, but my kids seemed to be allergic to scholarships and I paid a good deal more. Imagine you spend, as I did, $35,000 tuition, fees, and room and board to send Junior to an expensive school. This is not a negligible sum, though you need to remind yourself that this was a choice, that you could have determined upon a perfectly satisfactory alternative for a fraction of the price. Even so, for that $35,000, think of what your offspring receives. She is treated to many classes with 15 or fewer students, given immediate, personal access to experts in every major field of human endeavor; provided with individual mentoring to her heart's content, offered free entrée into a hundred different interest clubs; invited to presentations every day and night of music, theatre, dance, art; handed a pass to superb athletic facilities and opportunities to participate in 15 or 20 sports; afforded housing and food choices an earlier college generation would die for; and guaranteed lifetime friends, including some who will actively aid her career endeavors. Annual fees for your country club -- swimming, golf, so-so food, zilch culture, no lasting benefits whatsoever, and the same old crowd -- cost what, again?

In contrast, the claim for the pecuniary value of a college education has been $1 million, that is a million dollars difference in salary over a lifetime. Not bad for an investment of, say, even $100,000, a 10-to-one leveraging. It's better than free. But is that still true given the current spate of news articles about unemployed new graduates?

In fact, it is more true than ever before. These stories typically trumpet the fact that students six months out of college may be unemployed or trivially employed. But what did most people always do after college? They screwed around for a year or two. More important, the unemployment figures from the recent recession make a still stronger case for college. The unemployment rate for BA degree-holders peaked at 4 percent, well less than half the figure for high school grads, while those who didn't finish high school were high-teens unemployed. The data that really matters makes it plain -- college equals job, and in fact much better job.

The other current knock on college costs is more serious, and it concerns students graduating in debt, sometimes to the level of $25,000. But as Baum points out, the more accurate characterization is "investment." How much "debt" is constituted by a house mortgage? How much profit -- or, nowadays, loss -- will accrue from that, compared to the extra million, or (according to others) 80 percent additional annual income, from a college degree? Thank you.

Now just a minute, I'm sure I've forgotten something. Oh yes. Your mind and soul, that was it. This college education has the capacity to make you a whole person. It enlarges the tiny self -- perhaps six feet tall in the immensity of space, living for seven or eight decades in the eternity of time -- to link with the entirety of human experience. When I became a university president, my very young son asked me what we made at the university. I replied, "Great people." We seek to develop individuals who understand they must engage different views before coming to a conclusion, who can argue civilly and instruct others effectively, who can write not just clearly but expressively, who can test theories and ideas, who can discover and develop a discovery into a concrete reality, from a great new song to a means for exploring Mars. College fosters strong individuals who can think independently but who also know how to look at other, even and especially opposing viewpoints fairly and with empathy. (I admit the first paragraphs of this blog may not illustrate such cognitive generosity perfectly, but hey -- we're having fun. I know better.) Democratic society is utterly dependent upon such developed qualities. And in a time of competing values and dramatic differences among people, at its fullest a college education is nothing less than the hope of the world.

In truth the only exorbitant cost of college consists in not attending one.

Awright!, as we also say in Jersey. That felt really good. Now every so often for the next year, I am going to tell you and you are going to tell me what is dangerously amiss in this magnificent but deeply flawed system of American higher education. And then together we are going to fix it.

 
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