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How to Understand the High Cost of College

04/14/2015 04:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015
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In a recent (April 4, 2015) opinion essay in the New York Times, "The Real Reason College Costs So Much," Paul Campos, a law professor, argues that the high cost of college tuition today is solely the fault of the colleges, more caused by administrative bloat than by reduced governmental funding.

This is becoming an all-too-common complaint. In recent years, it has become popular for commentators and politicians on the federal and state levels to complain vociferously about the cost of a college degree. Implicitly -- and all too often explicitly, as in the case of Mr. Campos -- the allegation is that the colleges somehow are gouging students, profiteering at their expense.

This could not be further from the truth. In my 35 years in higher education at many different colleges and universities, small and very large, I have witnessed colleges do summersaults to try to keep the cost of tuition and expenditures down.

Never have I seen an institution intentionally attempt to inflate its costs and then pass that on to students. More often than not we work tirelessly to cut costs -- often resulting in criticism from our own faculty and staff because they so often have to do without.

We all need to understand the cost of today's tuition in context and from an historical perspective.

First of all, what you get today for your college tuition is vastly different from what, say, I got as a college student in the 1970s. Back then, if I experienced difficulties with my writing, I could find a friend who was a better writer to help me, or if I had been fortunate enough to come from an affluent family, I could hire a tutor. Otherwise, I was out of luck.

Today, a college student simply drops by the college's Writing Center to receive free personalized assistance from a trained writing tutor. Similarly, back then there was no Math Lab staffed by trained tutors to assist me if I was having trouble with algebra, as there typically is in most colleges today.

There was no Learning Center that could give me tips on how take effective notes in a lecture or manage my time more efficiently or prepare for exams. And if I was experiencing emotional problems or thoughts of suicide or simply was having a difficult time adjusting to college life, there was no counseling center staffed by trained professionals who could assist me, as there is today.

Back then, most instruction was done through lectures with the aid of blackboards. Occasionally, we were shown instructional films using an old-fashioned projector.

Today, the modern college classroom is fully wired for audio, video, internet, and interactive participation. Students in an anatomy class, for example, might view a 3-D video of a pumping heart or a highly magnified color image of single cell. Another class might be connected through the internet with another class at a university clear across the world.

Back then, we all ate our meals in a place called a cafeteria the typical facility where you stand in line with a plastic tray while you wait for an attendant to serve you one of the two meal options available for that meal. Sometimes it was a choice between a square of doughy pan pizza and what we all called -- not very affectionately -- "mystery meat." And always available as a beverage was the choice between iced tea or what we called "bug juice" -- a sweet cool-aid kind of drink, so named because the sugar inevitably attracted flies and other bugs thirsty for a sugar rush.

Today's students take their meals in a "dining facility," and they typically have multiple kinds of options available to them for any given meal. Students who are vegetarians (or even vegans) can rest assured that their needs will be met. The same is true for those with dietary restrictions that derive from their religious beliefs. And those with food allergies can be certain that they can avoid those ingredients that could potentially put their health -- and in some cases, their life -- at risk.

As a student, I lived in what we called a "dormitory," which consisted of a collection of cement-block cells just large enough to contain two single-size beds -- one for my roommate and one for me -- two desks, two chairs, and two small closets. There was a large common restroom and shower room shared by everyone on that floor. The floors were restricted by sex. The word "dormitory" derives from the Latin dormire, meaning "to sleep" -- and that's about all you could do (besides study) in the old-style dormitory.

Today's students live in "residence halls," and the new name is not an inflated name for the dormitory. The modern residence hall attempts to replicate -- as much as possible for a facility housing many people -- the kind of living experience one would have at home. While every residence hall is unique, frequently you find a cluster of bedrooms all opening up to a common living room and kitchenette. For example, you might find three or four bedrooms holding either one or two students, each connected to the modest size common living space. The residence hall might also include a game room and/or a small exercise room as well.

In other words, the modern residence hall is a much more humane living arrangement than the old, prison-like dormitory of my day. If students have a more comfortable living space, they are much more likely to succeed than if they did not.

Also, campus security was not the high priority in the 1970s that it must necessarily be today. Now that it has become thinkable that a person or persons can come to campus and engage in a prolonged shooting spree, college officials can no longer rely simply on their cadre of public safety officers.

Most colleges today have installed sophisticated campus safety measures, including arrays of surveillance cameras that allow officials to monitor all areas of the campus and to retain recordings of this coverage in the case that evidence of a crime is needed. Often, these surveillance cameras are tied through the internet into the local police station so that if the police need to respond to an "active shooter" call they can do so with full knowledge of where the perpetrators are on campus.

My larger point is that your college tuition today buys vastly more -- qualitatively and quantitatively -- than it did in the 1970s -- so much more that we are in effect speaking about two completely different experiences.

But all of the improvements that I just cited -- as well as many I did not -- cost a considerable amount of money to provide. Writing centers and math labs and learning centers all need physical spaces, paid tutors, and salaried directors to train them and supervise them. Counseling centers need appropriate physical spaces, trained and highly educated -- and therefore expensive -- counselors, and someone to supervise them. Outfitting an entire college campus -- especially a large university -- with all of the technology that it takes to support a fully wired environment and all of the types of necessary instructional technology and then to maintain it all in good working order takes a battalion of trained IT workers and many millions of dollars. Contracting with a professional food service to provide the level of choice and sensitivity to students' dietary needs is also a costly endeavor, and you can just imagine the costs entailed in building and maintaining a campus-full of residence halls of the sort I just described. Maintaining a comprehensive campus security system, including the computers, cameras and other equipment -- not to mention the personnel to monitor the camera footage in real time -- is a huge investment.

And then there are the many programs and facilities that a college or university subsidizes and that add to the richness of college life. Before coming to Daemen College, I served as Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost at a research university in Idaho. One of my academic programs was nuclear engineering, and as part of that program we operated a nuclear reactor -- not the huge, elaborate facility that you might see on a James Bond movie, but a small training facility. We also operated the Idaho Accelerator Center, which boasted the largest number of nuclear accelerators in the Western states.

Now the tuition from the relatively small number of students in this program could not possibly support such sophisticated facilities, yet the university felt that supporting them helped further the institution's research mission and provided those students with an incomparable learning experience.

Similarly, reporting to me as Provost was the Idaho Museum of Natural History, which is the official state museum of natural history. Although we charged a modest admission fee to visitors who were not students, the museum was entirely funded by the university, including the salary of the director and several curators. Again, the museum's presence on campus added immeasurably to the richness of the students' overall experience, but the cost of operating this facility was absorbed in the overall cost of running the university.

Every college and university can point to similar kinds of programs and facilities that are not tied to any specific revenue stream but that add greatly to their students' education, and all of these projects add to the overall cost of running the institution.

But it's not just that colleges today provide a completely improved -- and therefore more costly -- experience and environment to students than they once did. The actual costs of just about everything have risen dramatically as well.

When I began my career as a professor of English in 1980, my annual salary was $13,000. Today, the starting salary for a professor of English at a comparable university is approximately $55,000. In other words, back then a college could afford to hire about 4 entry-level English professors for what today's college would have to pay a single new professor.

While personnel salaries typically constitute a college's greatest single cost, everything else has increased dramatically as well. The cost of health care is typically one of a college's highest expenses, and we all know what has happened with the cost of health care.

Another of a college's highest costs is the cost of heating and electrifying campus buildings. The average cost of a barrel of crude oil in 1975 was about $20. In 2012 it was over $113 a barrel. The average cost of a gallon of gas in 1970 was 36 cents. In 2013 it was $3.80 -- over 10 times the cost.

The average cost of a new car in 1970 was $3,450. In 2013 it was $31,352 -- again, about 10 times the cost.

So, not only do colleges provide vastly more to students -- quantitatively and qualitatively--than they once did, the cost of everything needed to keep the college running has skyrocketed.

Now, is it true that the cost of a college education is high? Absolutely. But it is not because colleges are gouging students or spending their resources wastefully. It is for the reasons I just rehearsed.

Of course, we could always return to the way we were in the 1970s -- put students back in cell blocks, fire all the tutors and counselors, revert to two-option meal plans, and the rest -- but I don't think that's what any of us want.

If you really want to "fix" the problem with the cost of education, then there is a simple solution: we as a society need to recommit ourselves to the need for and the value of a higher education. In the Eisenhower years and the Kennedy years and even the Johnson years, higher education was a clear priority for the nation, and colleges received substantial public support, and financial aid for students was generous. This is not the case any longer.

The Scandinavian countries, in contrast, have demonstrated substantial support for higher education. Denmark and Sweden provide free tuition to all students from their countries and other European Union nations. Norway provides free tuition to every admitted student, regardless of their nationality. Many Asian countries are currently investing heavily in higher education because they are fully aware that their economic future and competitiveness depend on a highly educated populace.

As a dean at a university in Illinois some years ago, I hosted a high-level delegation from Thailand eager to learn as much as they could about our system because they were building many new universities throughout the country.

So, how do we fix all of this? Let's begin by renewing our national commitment to higher education -- not with platitudes but with meaningful support. For example, here are four concrete measures that the government can take to substantially affect college affordability by significantly increasing Federal Student Aid access and funding levels.

First, increase PELL Grant Funding Limits. Federal PELL Grant increases over the years have been minimal and have not kept pace with the cost of education. (PELL grants, by the way, are for students demonstrating financial need.)

Second, provide PELL Grants to "more" students by increasing the eligibility range for these grants.

Third, increase Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant (SEOG) Funding to Institutions. These are grants are used to help fund financially needy students who are also PELL eligible.

Fourth, increase federal loan limits. Federal loan limits have not changed significantly over the last several years. Increased loan levels will provide more access to higher education, especially for students who may not be eligible for other need based grants.

More importantly -- most importantly -- let's change the discourse. Let's stop pointing fingers and assessing blame. Let's instead work together to once again become the best system of education in the world. Let's have another Sputnik moment and recapture our rightful place in the world. The nation's future -- and our competitiveness -- depends on it.

A version of this post was presented as a speech in the Distinguished Speaker Series at the Buffalo Club in Buffalo, New York, April 13, 2015.

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