Yesterday’s New York Times had an article about why the cost of college rises, even in a recession. It mentions things like faculty productivity, administrative growth, and the difficulty of cutting out anything, once it’s been established. I often hear friends with college-age kids express outrage at the very high prices they’re asked to pay, as if the colleges were somehow taking advantage of a captive market, and I always want to say, “OK, what would you like to cut?”
Would it be the brand new science center, with high-end lab equipment that is absolutely essential to teaching science today? Would it be the security features that all colleges have installed to some degree? (When I began working at Penn in 1979, the dormitories were wide open during the daytime and the security program was to encourage the students to confront sketchy people they saw strolling around the hallways. When I left in 1996, we had 24-hour guards at each entrance, with cameras, card swipes, panic buttons, and alarm cords in all public bathrooms. Surely people realize that this stuff doesn’t come free!) And what about technology – when I was at Penn 20 years ago, we spent millions of dollars on a multi-year project to bring internet, phone, and cable tv “to every pillow” in the dormitories. In retrospect, with cell phones and wireless, I don’t even know if it’s used anymore, but at the time, it was cutting edge and essential.
In my own very intensive touring with two high school daughters, I noted we were always shown a fancy new fitness center, filled with students. Is that what should be cut? And they all took the dining experience very seriously. When I was in school, we had two choices for dinner – the main entree or last night’s leftovers. No allowance was made for special diets based on philosophy, religion, or allergies. I don’t remember any vegetarians, but I suppose they would have been expected to eat peanut butter or iceberg lettuce most nights. Now, of course, there are many flexible eating options and schedules, with local produce, many choices and everyone’s needs accommodated. It’s the new normal; no one would stand for anything less.
I get personally offended at the idea that it’s the “administrative creep” that’s the cause of college being more expensive, as if the bureaucracy grows for its own sake. My own job is probably an example of that in some eyes. After all, most people my age don’t recall having a pre-med/pre-law advisor when they were in school; perhaps a biology professor did it on the side. But I have 600 students, plus a few hundred alumni, who are constantly in touch with me for advice about requirements, application processes, or just anxiety about whether or not they’ll get in. If your child is pre-med, do you really want to close my office down? The Career Services office next door is really hopping – with a snazzy website with thousands of resources, a constant stream of corporate and non-profit recruiters, individual consultations, and even workshops on proper etiquette and table manners. When I was a student, career development was a small metal box filled with index cards with open jobs. Do you really want your child’s college to go back to those days? Every college puts great effort (and money) into academic support services, with reading and writing centers, tutoring, and assistance for students with learning differences. Over the past thirty years, every college has expanded its services for emotional support, too. Do we really want to go back to the days of sink or swim?
Most of the things we look for, and expect, in a college are expensive. And like with taxes, we all pay for stuff we don’t use or care about, and in exchange, everyone contributes to the stuff we do. I am happy to contribute a bit to Vassar’s lacrosse team, as long as everyone pays a bit to support the student experimental theater program. I am happy to pay to support Yale’s disability services, not just in principle, but because my daughter suddenly needed them last week when she sprained her ankle and had to be carted around campus. Nobody’s getting rich in the college business. It’s just that the needs, the wants, and the expectations just keep getting bigger and bigger.