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The runaway cost of college

A cautionary tale

Created date

May 24th, 2011

After 9/11, Americans watched the price of oil spiral out of control. The climb that started around $1.25 per gallon, in the next several years, jumped to an outrageous $4 in some parts of the country. Even worse is higher education. The esteemed institution arguably tops the rising cost of oil with tuition hikes that have people wondering when the price madness will end. By the way things look, not any time soon.

Through the roof

According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the cost of college tuition has risen an astounding 440% between 1982 and 2006. To put this statistic in perspective, that s quadruple the average rate of inflation. The cost increases in education have occurred at both public and private colleges, says Louis Lataif, dean emeritus of the School of Management at Boston University. Just ten years ago, the cost of a four-year public college education amounted to 18% of the annual income of middle-income families. And ten years later, it amounted to 25% of that family s average annual income. During his January 2010 State of the Union Address, President Obama rebuked the higher-ed establishment, asserting that: In the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college .[I]t s time for colleges and universities to get serious about cutting their own costs because they too have a responsibility to help solve this problem.

Facilities arms race

Lataif argues that a big part of the problem is the facilities arms race that has raged between universities for the last 25 years. College rankings from thePrinceton Review and U.S. News and World Reporthave become benchmarks for comparing institutions, prompting them to compete with amenities. Those who have recently set foot on a college campus have probably seen evidence of it. Classrooms resemble NASA s Mission Control, fitness centers rival Club Med, and dorm rooms look more like condos. Another cause for the rise in tuition, Lataif says, is the perceived need for each university to build its own stable of star scholars big names that attract students as much with their celebrity as they do with their talent. [T]op professors are lured away from one university to another with the promise of significant salary increases, more time and support for their academic research like research assistants and laboratory space and a light teaching load, he explains. One social science scholar observed to me that the professoriate is the only profession he knew of where the better you were at it, the less of it you did less teaching, that is. And as the teaching load shrinks for these highly paid star scholars, so does the access to higher education among a growing population of Americans. In 2009, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education released a report on the country s perception of college in the U.S. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of Americans who believed that college is necessary jumped from 31% to 55%, while in that same period, those who believed success was possible without college fell from 67% to 43%. Though more want to attend, fewer can afford it. Based on such factors, Lataif believes it s only a matter of time before the public bucks the rising cost, forcing colleges and universities to change with them. More students will complete four-year degrees in three. They ll demand cheaper, electronic textbooks over the heavy volumes that cost $1,000. Some universities may fail if they don t conform, Lataif predicts, adding that 124 have closed their doors in the last ten years. After all, who will spend $3,000 on a calculus course when they can buy an instructional DVD for $50?

Unsustainable course

As it currently stands, universities are on a course that is unsustainable. The College Board projects that in 15 years a four-year undergraduate degree from a private institution will run students and their parents around $400,000. The question remains whether a breaking point exists and, if so, when the nation will reach it. We Americans can be very proud of the higher educational infrastructure that has been created over the past two centuries, Lataif says. A strong, accessible education is second only to strong parenting if we are to build a sustainable society. I hope, as a citizenry, we do all we can to help assure the survival of a superior higher education establishment. Visit this site for related graphics:http://www.a...