In my previous post, I noted the diametrically opposed reactions of some colleges and universities to the public’s rising concerns regarding the cost of a college education, and the ballooning debt taken on by a growing number of students and their families.
The large majority of both public and private institutions are tweaking what I believe to be a broken model: they are seeking to increase financial aid while looking for ways of economizing, but, while well intentioned, these are at best temporary bandages on a severe wound. Moreover, these solutions are not sustainable, and, in their efforts to economize, these campuses risk being perceived as cutting the quality of their educational offerings.
In the last few months, a number of the wealthiest colleges and universities in the country have been reconsidering the level of their financial aid. Paradoxically, their intent is not to increase their financial aid, but to reduce it. How do we reconcile societal concerns regarding the rising costs of higher education (and the corresponding rise in student debt) with the decision by wealthy colleges to spend less on student aid? What is going on?
Let’s turn the clock back about 30 years. In the early 1980s, there were, by today’s standards, only a handful of wealthy colleges and universities. Top-tier universities such as Duke and Brown had endowments of less than $150 million. Even at Harvard, endowment drawdown and annual giving contributed only a minor portion of the annual operating budget. And yet, as a fraction of median family income, the cost of college then was significantly more affordable than it is today.
In my last post, I posed the dilemma of how a campus could freeze tuition (as Roger Williams University has chosen to do), thereby eliminating a logical source of new revenue, without somehow causing damage to the quality of the students’ educational outcomes. Isn’t it the case that “you get what you pay for” – and if you pay less, doesn’t that ensure that you will receive less?
Of course, most people recognize that the quoted statement is overly simplistic. A person can spend anywhere from about $15,000 to more than $200,000 for a new car, but most people don’t think that it is worth it to spend extravagantly on a car, if their primary goal is just to have reliable transportation. Similarly, one can purchase a perfectly respectable bottle of wine for $10 to $20, although it is also possible to spend more than $200 for a grand cru from Burgundy. Is that bottle worth 10 or 20 times the first bottle? As a practical matter, not to most people.
A recent analysis showed that the median family income in America, adjusted for inflation, has fallen to levels not seen since 1995. The median inflation-adjusted tuition sticker price at America’s private colleges and universities, however, has grown by more than 50 percent since 1995. The consequence, even with increases in institutional aid, is that a substantially smaller fraction of the population is able to afford today’s prices than was true in 1994.
How have we arrived at this undesirable – and, I would suggest, unacceptable – outcome?
Well, there are several reasons. Higher education is an inherently costly enterprise, and there are few economies of scale: doubling class size, for example, would save money, but it would come at the expense of a personalized learning environment – the primary selling point of private higher education.