I belong to a Yale class of ’75 listserv, and recently, in addition to planning for our 35th reunion (starts the day after tomorrow!), there has been a lively discussion about the seemingly shocking rise in the cost of college: a year at Yale cost about $5,000 in our day, and $50,000 now. Since I have papers to grade and there is no better motivation than procrastination, I offer some comments on the subject—with the understanding that they are purely based on personal experience and observation, not on any knowledge of the economics of higher ed, the economics of pricing, or the economics of anything. So here they randomly are.
1. My personal inflationary landmarks (aka the things whose prices I remember and are basically the same product over time) are the newsstand price of the New York Times (ten cents in 1971; $2 now) and the price of a ride on the N.Y. subway (thirty cents in ’71; $2 now). So the change in the cost of a year at Yale ($5,000-$50,000) is roughly in keeping with those commodities.
2. At Yale (which Maria attends), Swarthmore (where Gigi works), the U. of Delaware (where I work), and Vassar (from which Lizy just graduated), and presumably most other major colleges and universities, if you divide the annual cost of running the school and educating the students by the number of students, you come up with a figure that is more, and in some cases far more, than the sticker price of tuition (much less the amount that the average student actually pays, once financial aid is factored in). At Yale and Swarthmore, my sense is that tuition accounts for something in the area of half the cost, with the rest coming from endowment income. At Delaware, which gets funding from the state (though it isn’t technically a state school), tuition accounts for roughly 40 percent of the budget. The relevance of this is that even if costs were substantially reduced (athletic programs cut, professors made to teach five classes year-round, tenure eliminated, thermostats set at 65 in the winter, etc.), tuition still wouldn’t cover them, so tuition would not go down.
3. When I chat with my Delaware students, I often ask them why they chose to come here. The most common answer (often eerily expressed in exactly the same words) is, “I fell in love with the campus.” That makes sense. It was a nice setting to begin with, but in the eighteen years I’ve been teaching there the place has been transformed, with a lot of new buildings, extensive renovations to all the old buildings, and every cement sidewalk torn up and replaced with a brick path. From looking at dozens of colleges with my two children, I know that UD is not alone in spending so much on physical plant. The centerpiece of virtually every tour we took was the “state of the art” gym (a state-of-the-art library was rarely on display). My sense is that all colleges, even the Yales and Swarthmores, realize they are in a battle for students with their peer institutions, and amenities and the appearance of luxury is one of the most important things they can sell, if not the most important. This has nothing to do with education, obviously, and it costs a lot of money, also obviously.
4. When we went to my daughter Lizy’s graduation over the weekend, we were very gratified to bring with us my 95-year-old mother-in-law, Marge Simeone. She is in fine fettle, but isn’t quite as nimble as she used to be, so we rented a wheelchair for her. On graduation day, the second—and I mean the second—we got to the outdoor amphitheatre where commencement was to take place, we were greeted by a friendly, extremely competent woman wearing a nametag stating her name and “Office of Disability Affairs” (or words to that effect). She very clearly explained all the options for seating, and access to and exit from same, and made it clear that she and her colleagues would do everything they could to make sure we comfortably enjoyed the ceremonies.
My reason for sharing this touching anecdote? The friendly woman was part of the administrative superstructure some of you have alluded to and which, indeed, has relatively recently sprung up and multiplied at U.S. colleges. So, in fact, is Gigi. She and her half-time assistant spend their time helping Swarthmore students (and alumni) get into medical school and law school. None of these jobs existed thirty-five years ago, and they cost a lot of money to staff and run. Should they be gotten rid of?
One of my Yale classmates, Chris Edwards, talked about the sort of nanny-state RA system he experienced when he fairly recently went to BU to get an advanced degree. Again, this whole structure (often called “Residence Life”) postdates our college experience and is a presence to some extent on all campuses. Gigi in fact used to work in this field (at the Universities of New Hampshire and Pennsylvania), so I have some familiarity in how it works, essentially, to address and develop the non-academic side of students. This quest can sometimes seem a little foolish, as Chris observed. But its has a sort of noble bottom line, which is, as I see it, to support who more than likely wouldn’t have made it through (or been damaged by) the Darwinian sink-or-swim college ethos of past decades: people in wheelchairs, the non-wealthy, those on some kind of emotional precipice, those that society seems to think are marginal or different, and so forth. People with a handicap, or at least without a head start.
The sink-or-swim mentality had a kind of attractive intellectual purity to it, and was a whole lot cheaper. But there is no going back. And even if there were, I’m not sure I would want to.
And now I really have to grade those papers.