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Is College Worth the Expense?

college campusThe cost of attending a four-year college in the United States has increased sharply of late, from around $3,500 in the early 1980’s to around $24,000 for this upcoming academic year.

Since 1980, nothing has increased in price more than college. Not health care. Not gasoline. Not housing.

If college costs had increased with inflation since the early 1980’s, tuition this year would be a little more than $9,000 per year. What accounts for the extra $15,000 in annual expenses?

As I explain in my recent videos ,two main factors are primarily responsible for sharply rising college costs.

First, there are more administrators at colleges today than several decades ago. In addition, administrator salaries have soared during the past several decades. It is not uncommon now for college presidents to make more than $1,000,000 per year.

A second key factor pushing up college costs is that government aid to higher education has declined at both the federal and state levels. Given the costs of educating students, universities have increased tuition in order to make up for lost government money.

There are also some lesser forces that have pushed up the cost of higher education:the expenses associated with college athletics, and the attempt to attract students with amenities like nice dorms, good food at the dining hall, a first-rate gym and pretty landscaping.

One question that many people are asking is whether a college degree is actually worth the expense. This is a good question and one that needs a good answer.

There are reasons for concern.

Students do seem to get little for their money. Undergraduate teaching has been outsourced to part-timers and graduate students. Too many faculty members focus more on getting published than teaching students. Other faculty have figured out that if they demand little of their students, and give all their students A’s and B’s, their jobs are easier and their student evaluations higher.

The consequence of this was made clear by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in Academically Adrift (University of Chicago Press, 2011). Their most depressing finding is that students learn very little during their first two years of college,in large part because they spend little time reading, writing or doing homework.

In addition, many students graduate deeply in debt. While an average student graduating with debt has more than $30,000 in college loans, many students have much higher levels of debt. Some students also have substantial credit card debt (used to pay for books, computers and living expenses while at school). This will likely affect important things such as their ability to buy a home, and what kind of home they can afford.

Having said all this, students still get a great deal for their tuition money. In 2014, median annual earnings for full-time workers with a B.A. degree equaled $67,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For those without a college degree, annual wages were less than $40,000. On average, you can expect to make an additional $27,000 every year because you have a college degree. If you work 40 years, your total gain will come out to more than $1 million.

Despite the high and rising costs of a college education in the U.S., despite the debt, and despite problems with the quality of education, there are still a million good reasons to obtain a college degree.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. john b #

    I don’t think the argument stated here stands to reason :

    “A second key factor pushing up college costs is that government aid to higher education has declined at both the federal and state levels. Given the costs of educating students, universities have increased tuition in order to make up for lost government money.”

    A decline in government aid would reduce demand because the availability subsidized government loans and grants, at the margin, make attending college more attractive than work. Therefore if aid falls, demand falls. So other things equal, reduced financial aid reduces demand relative to supply and tuition would fall, not increase.

    In fact there is substantial empirical evidence that it is an increase, not a decrease in government financial aid, which has (not surprisingly) resulted in the dramatic increases in the cost of attending college. I recommend the just released (July 2015) Fed study entitled Credit Supply and the Rise in College Tuition: Evidence from the Expansion in Federal Student Aid Programs . Or for a synopsis in the WSJ, see


    August 6, 2015
  2. Steven Pressman, Visiting Research Fellow #

    We are talking about different things here John B. I am talking about the cost side.


    August 10, 2015
    • john b #

      Perhaps. But it seems unambiguous that government enabled financial aid to colleges has increased, not decreased.


      August 11, 2015

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