Who’s Really To Blame For The Rising Cost of College?

by Aaron Kaufman

As I watched my girlfriend cross the stage in Lincoln Center’s lavishly decorated Avery Fisher Hall to receive her master’s in social work from NYU on Wednesday, I was filled with mixed emotions.

First and foremost, I felt proud to be dating someone who had invested exorbitant sums of money to receive an advanced education in a field dedicated to helping others. I was proud that she made the decision to venture down such a difficult career path despite the fact that it will likely never be lucrative.

I was encouraged to see that she and more than 500 others were willing to make that personal investment, even as society stands to benefit from it more than they do. We need more people willing to make the same decision.

As it stands now, I understand why they don’t.

Thus, why my emotions were mixed. As she was handed her diploma, I couldn’t help but feel bitter.

I was bitter towards a university that seemed intent on exploiting every opportunity to leech every last dime from her, knowing full well that she was entering into a career that will make it difficult to pay off the debts she has accumulated. I was bitter that higher education in the United States has become increasingly cost prohibitive, even as more careers now require advanced degrees than ever before.

Fortunately, she is in a better position than most when it comes to tackling her student debts.

Most aren’t so lucky.

The sad fact is that since the Great Recession in 2009, students have been forced to take on a larger share of public college costs than at any other time in history. Instinctively, I wanted to blame the universities themselves for this condition. In truth, they’re only a small part of a much bigger problem.

From 2008 to 2009, the average tuition and fees for students attending public four-year colleges increased from $7,008 to $8,893, according to a report by the College Board. This was largely a product of the economic recession, which forced states across the country to reduce funding to public institutions.

While that funding is once again on the rise for the first time since hitting a low point in 2012 (states allocated 5.7 percent more on average to higher education in 2014 than in 2013), tuition rates have remained stagnant.

The crux of the problem is that once tuition levels are raised, they almost never fall, regardless of whether or not additional funding mechanisms are established.

As a result, even with larger shares of state budgets being appropriated to funding public institutions, states are still spending an average of 23 percent less on each college student than they did prior to the start of the recession in 2007, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Unfortunately, reduced state and federal spending on each student has been a long-standing trend. As of 2013, public universities and colleges received an all-time high of 47 percent of their revenue from tuition. In 1988, that revenue from tuition was 24 percent, according to the nonprofit State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO).

State subsidies to fund public education tend to be an early target when government officials are forced to balance ballooning budgets. They make the assumption that universities always have the option of raising tuition, whereas finding additional tax revenue is far more difficult.

When deciding whether to fund public education or other social welfare programs like Medicaid, where costs are also on the rise, governments almost always opt for the latter. Consequently, from 2001-2011, the share of state and local taxes allocated for postsecondary education fell from 7.3 percent to 6.5 percent, according to SHEEO.

What’s more, collegiate institutions are being forced to hire expensive faculty members for non-teaching positions in order to comply with new government regulations, further driving up tuition costs.

As Arthur F. Kirk Jr., president of Saint Leo University wrote in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“In recent years at Saint Leo University, we have added positions in risk management, internal audit (two), legal compliance, financial-aid regulatory compliance, human resources, accounting, security and safety, athletic training, athletic compliance, and university-accreditation compliance.

In every one of these instances, we are generally responding directly or indirectly to federal regulatory mandates, legal trends, insurers’ expectations, accreditors’ requirements, and so on,” he wrote.

“The resulting increased financial oversight, internal audit, and risk management are all reasonable and responsible activities — and all require administrative staff and add substantial real costs. Students and parents pay.”

While these disturbing funding trends are largely in response to economic and political events that are beyond the control of college administrations and overseers of state budgets, students suffer most in the end. It’s a sort of trickle-down victimization, where the costs ultimately encumber student bodies most significantly.

The result: The students who pursue higher education are becoming less and less diverse. With college becoming increasingly unaffordable, low-income families are unable to take on the financial burden of paying for it, even as college becomes a prerequisite for most jobs in an economy where manufacturing and trade jobs are diminished.

“It’s a complex problem, in the sense that there are some fundamental issues that states have to wrestle with and the choices that they make in terms of how to spend the resources that they have,” Bob Kind, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, told Pew’s Stateline.

“This is not sustainable in an era when more and more students from lower-income families need to attend and graduate from college.”

Returning to my original point, herein lies the biggest problem. The people who have the most intimate knowledge of our society’s ailing are those who, themselves, hail from communities that experience the most hardship.

They have seen firsthand the impact that rampant poverty yields. They could know how best to address it. They should pursue careers – like social work – where the principal goal is to remedy these issues and better our collective human condition.

Yet, they can’t overcome the system that we have created that overly restricts upwards socio-economic mobility. So we are left with a collegiate student body that overwhelmingly pursues an education in fields that do not address these plights.

The solution is simple. As Daniel J. Hurley, associate vice president for government relations and state policy at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, wrote in an article for USA Today:

“The best way to mitigate future tuition increases is for state leaders to reinvest in public higher education… Maintaining access to affordable public colleges is paramount to our nation's economic security, social equity and civic vibrancy. It is incumbent upon state government, together with public colleges and universities, to ensure this happens.”

Photo Credit: Aaron Kaufman