Every school year, in my twelfth grade English class, we have a few weeks after finishing the Middle Ages and before exams. Two weeks is too little time to start on the Renaissance, which we would then finish in January and February, so I have them read some good current journalism about what it means (and what it takes) to get a college education. If they haven’t really thought about that by December of their senior year, then it’s high time they do.
This year, alongside other articles from The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, I had my seniors to read a long-form piece from Salon.com, from June 2014, about the “tuition spiral,” which was ominously titled “Colleges are full of it: Behind the three-decade scheme to raise tuition, bankrupt generations, and hypnotize the media.” Somehow I had either overlooked this article in past years, or had opted not to include it due to its length – I don’t know which – but its substance is eye-opening.
The upward-trending “tuition spiral” began in the early 1980s and hasn’t stopped yet. When I was in college from 1992 through 1996, I can remember tuition going up nearly every quarter, and if my memory serves me, it had nearly doubled by the time I graduated. However, Salon’s Thomas Frank wrote, there’s this:
But somehow nothing ever gets done. The trend does continue. And for 30 years the journalists who cover the subject have followed the same pointless script. They have hunted fruitlessly for the legitimate expense that they knew must be driving up the prices. They have chased repeatedly after the wrong answers, blaming everybody and everything except for the obvious culprits. They have related to us the politicians’ plans for bringing the spiral to a stop—plans that everyone can see have virtually no chance of succeeding.
So what’s causing it? Frank explains to his readers that, while university administrators blame everyone else in the equation for the fact that tuition has gone up 1,100–1,200% in the last thirty years, the culprits might be the very people who are raising it:
The possibility that higher tuition prices were going to pay for rapidly multiplying and yet educationally unnecessary administrators was not really raised in earnest until a memorable page-one series published in 1996 by the Philadelphia Inquirer. This interpretation had the virtue of being accurate: Unlike tenured faculty, university administrations actually have grown by 369 percent since the mid-1970s.
I have plenty of friends who are university professors, and I can tell you that neither their salaries nor their numbers have increased 1,200% in thirty years; nor can that be said for custodians, secretaries, or librarians. Maybe all that extra dough is not trickling down into services that students actually use.
However, I will readily concede that tuition should have gone up in thirty years and should have outpaced inflation. Though computers were available in the mid-1990s when I was finishing my bachelor’s degree, I didn’t know anybody who had one. I and everyone else I knew completed our education with three basic components: professors, books, and typewriters. Ten years later, when I went back to grad school at that same university, there were computers everywhere! Those machines and software, and the infrastructure and personnel to support them, had to have cost millions of dollars! I’ve asked my high school students before: would you consider going to a college that had affordable tuition but that used only professors, books, and typewriters? They all roundly dismiss the notion as foolish, absurd, nonsensical.
And that tip of the hat to the very real cost increase doesn’t mention the improvements to “amenities,” which Frank also discusses. When I was an undergraduate, the campus police were just above laughable, and the school certainly didn’t offer a “Wellness Center,” where we could work out on state-of-the-art equipment. My tuition bought me instruction from professors and access to the library; the rest was up to me.
But back to Thomas Frank. So what do we do about the fact that a college education is, in terms of cost, out of reach for most families, if they had to pay cash from their own pockets? Now that we know . . .
The first thing is to understand the situation, and the situation seems pretty clear. In addition to the Salon.com article, I also had my students to read two other articles on the same subject – A New York Times opinion piece from April 2015 and a September 2016 article from The Atlantic – and both said basically the same things. (Frank Bruni has been writing about these subjects for years.)
Part of the problem is that students are paying for too many things that have absolutely nothing with getting an education: high-end dorms, workout centers, bureaucrats. Students and their families need to start asking, What would it cost if I didn’t want those things? What if I wanted just the classes? That might force colleges to create tiered tuition plans that include the ability to opt-out of some features, thus allowing parents to look their children and say, I’m sorry, honey, but you’re to have do without the workout center. Speaking as a nontraditional adult student, I was in graduate school from 2005 until 2008, and though my “tuition” entitled me to that Wellness Center, I never went once— and never considered going.
When we know the facts, we can act accordingly. Now we know that we’re not sending our high-school graduates to college; we’re sending them to overly expensive year-round summer camps where layers of paid professionals are charged with the duty of keeping them safe, coddling them, counseling them, reminding them, making sure they have WiFi everywhere they go— let’s be honest: allowing them not to take responsibility for themselves.
Maybe it’s time for all of us to stop paying these overblown costs. Maybe it’s time we save some of our hard-earned cash, stop protecting them, and let them do what we all did: grow up.