Will college tuition eventually be infinitely expensive?


Some good thoughts here. I’ll offer a couple of my own, FWIW.

One, charts and graphs aggregating college costs are problematic in some ways, as the sheer range of college options is vastly greater today than it was in prior decades, and the costs run the entire gamut from pretty affordable to astronomical. While the charts and graphs probably show an accurate overall picture, it’s not necessarily relevant to the choices any individual or their family might make.

Two, a huge factor in college costs is the way Americans conceive of college in the first place. Again, this runs the gamut from “college is just job training” to “it’s a four year experience of growth and discovery” to “get the kid out of the house and pay someone else to worry about him.” If you just want training, it isn’t expensive, really. If you want a solid education of true college quality as we traditionally frame it, it still isn’t hyper-expensive. It’s when you want either of those plus four (or more) years of living in a youth-oriented, custom-built environment tailored to cater to the desires of 18-22 year olds–and usually surrounded by a supporting ecosystem tailored to all of those things colleges won’t formally support but rely on, that is, sex and drugs and rock and roll–that things get really costly. For many people, though, “college” isn’t “college” without all the trimmings, and those cost.

Three, comparing costs to test scores is also problematic. Just as those aggregated costs can be misleading, in the particulars, test scores are really questionable metrics. Which tests? What is there relationship to other metrics, like jobs, income, etc.? Admittedly, I’m not in K-12 where tests are sort of king, but from the college perspective I’m pretty skeptical of most test systems.

Four, class. Not the class room, but social and economic class. I like the thought exercises in this thread on how to fix things, but consider what might happen if, say, we did roll back funding so as to force a market correction. Rich people would, well, still go to colleges, in droves. The expensive, elite schools would have no real incentive to roll back costs; most have huge endowments, and are turning away people willing to pay full freight. The people most likely to be hurt might well turn out to be the people being frozen out by costs today. Admittedly, the loan situation is dreadful, and I agree 100% that colleges are in general mendacious in their treatment of loans as the same as disposable income for their students. Add to that the wretched labor model that makes higher education in the US sustainable at all–the way schools churn out people with advanced degrees and then use the surplus to drive down wages and benefits for adjuncts, who then sustain the school–and there’s plenty of ick to go around.

Five, and finally, my own personal feeling is that there is zero institutional interest in fixing this problem. Colleges, no matter how well intentioned, are prisoners of their labor model, their boards of trustees, and the sheer inertia of maintaining cash flow and their own existence. The political leadership, on the other hand, is in the pockets of big business in general, which has no interest whatsoever in actually educating people. Training them, sure, but actually building a system of true education where people learn to think? Preposterous. They might actually figure out the emperor is buck naked, and then here would we get our cogs and drones? This is one reason you constantly see paeans to STEM stuff. What they really mean is “technically skilled workers who can do semi-complex tasks,” not “people who are really pushing the limits of scientific thinking.” No, they want obedient specialists to make patents for them, not world-changers. And it really explains why they hate the liberal arts. Despite a fair number of studies showing that graduates in the humanities end up doing quite well, financially, and even some tech and business leaders pointing out that the most successful among them have liberal arts backgrounds, the drumbeat of commentary is pretty much totally focused on painting the humanities as a dead end. And when any discussion of college funding reform comes up, you get folks saying why should we do X or Y or Z just to allow someone to waste money on Mayan poetry? What they really mean is, “we sure as hell don’t want to fund people learning how to think, or ask questions, as it might affect our phony baloney jobs!”


Yeah I should have mentioned this because it is a big factor:

“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” — Clay Shirky


Has there ever been anything as institutionalized as college where over time costs actually went down?

I remember paying $50 for a semester at a junior college. I remember paying $350 a semester at a Cal State university. Those costs are now roughly $800 and $3,500. Of course that doesn’t include books, room or board.


Not sure where it fits in, but something to consider as well is the pressure on colleges to provide all sorts of services to students, particularly developmental and mental health services. As people have become increasingly convinced that a college degree is essential to avoid a life of poverty (and for many reasons many businesses have helped perpetuate this even though by any rational assessment it should not at all be true, based on what jobs actually require), they have also become increasingly desperate to make sure their kids get college degrees, no matter how ill-suited or ill-prepared they are. While there is a huge benefit in expanding and enhancing the ways colleges interact with people of all types, and many, many things colleges do to improve access have had profound social benefits, there is still a cost for all of this.

Where I teach, a small school, if a student has an issue often a whole team of folks is mobilized to work with counselors, teachers, the parents, on and off campus resources of various types, etc. to make sure things are taken care of, whether it’s due to a mental health issue, a physical issue, or whatever. That sort of intervention does not come cheap.


Not generally just because of inflation if nothing else.


Not sure if anyone has posted this yet. While I am not trying to argue rising tuition is a good or neutral phenomenon, it’s also true that the college wage premium has increased significantly relative to high school graduates. Might not be relevant if you’re an Arts student, though,


I’ll throw in a drive-by link of an article I’ve just started reading:


“Disinterested” means “impartial.” Did that writer go to college? =)


There are a number of fiercely committed individuals who care very deeply about maintaining the distinction between disinterested and uninterested. These are two distinct words, but if there’s confusion about them, it exists for good reason: each word started out with the opposite meaning that it holds today.

PS - Discourse forum software making it harder to quote stuff than it should.


You and your facts and evidence. You’re fake news!


So, as more people go to college… college education becomes more and more important? Is that a “feedback loop”?


From that Atlantic article:

This was my own personal biggest disappointment with the way the world works and my own brain works. I graduated with a BS in Chemistry in 1996, and although I’ve retained a lot of Math, especially calculus, I’ve retained surprisingly little Chemistry ever since I stopped using it at work and went into other fields. The world around us is full of uses of Chemistry and Physics, and yet it’s all designed to work without knowledge of these fields. I worked quite a bit with plumbers and electricians recently, and their work deals a LOT with both Chemistry and Physics, and yet they need to know nothing about it. All their specialized tools made for them deal with the physics of any particular situation, and they just need to know how to use the tool, not how that tool gets the job done, and the underlying physics at work.

I’m not saying that’s not how it should be, necessarily. It’s kind of cool that we can make things simple and create tools and chemicals ready for everyday use, so that anyone can use them. But I kind of wish people still had that knowledge, that people talked about things like Physics and why things work the way they do. But that’s not part of public discourse. And when you don’t use that knowledge, the brain forgets.

A coworker of mine has been taking college courses over the last two years, and he’s needed help. I’ve been helping him with Calculus and sometimes Physics and Chemistry and it’s all been flooding back to me. It requires some revision, but it does come back to you when you look over people’s notes, and you can quickly figure out how to help. I just wish the way we lived and what we talked about in society involved a lot more science talk and philosophy talk, and math talk. Over the last decade Political Science has become something we talk about more here in the U.S. Since 9/11, Geography talk greatly increased in common conversation. I just wish other topics could also come into our common shared conversations more.


Since PC computing was still a growing and rather newish thing at the time I went to school (1989-1993), the curriculum was heavily math based. I think my degree actually says “Computer Science/Mathematics”. I didn’t retain much of the math part of that although it certainly kicked my ass in college. Knowledge retention is greatly influenced by practice and repetition, which in college is something you just don’t have time for unless you are the most unsocial person ever. Even then, there are only so many hours in the day for each of your class workloads.

The thing college DID give me (liberal arts school… Ursinus specifically) is the ability to think. It made me good at problem solving in ways high school did not. It also gave me huge social awareness and acceptance. It exposed me to ideas and concepts that the real world doesn’t present you in a way you often have time to consider. I also learned enough to be able to work with computers every day.

I think all that other stuff was more valuable even than the stuff in my degree. I’m a better rounded person today because of it, and if you never go to college, you seem unlikely to have as much of that experience to round you out. This is not street smarts, something I probably have less of, but rather an ability to think about how to live amongst other people and accept them for who they are and just accept them as they come.


Blame the headline writer. The term he uses in the article is “uninspiring”.

We can and should investigate education’s broad social implications. When humanists consider my calculations of education’s returns, they assume I’m being a typical cynical economist, oblivious to the ideals so many educators hold dear. I am an economist and I am a cynic, but I’m not a typical cynical economist. I’m a cynical idealist. I embrace the ideal of transformative education. I believe wholeheartedly in the life of the mind. What I’m cynical about is people.

I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines. I’m cynical about teachers. The vast majority are uninspiring. I’m cynical about “deciders”—the school officials who control what students study. The vast majority think they’ve done their job as long as students comply.

Those who search their memory will find noble exceptions to these sad rules. I have known plenty of eager students and passionate educators, and a few wise deciders. Still, my 40 years in the education industry leave no doubt that they are hopelessly outnumbered. Meritorious education survives but does not thrive.


Well, this is an interesting viewpoint:


The whole thing is ridiculous. I have three kids trying to figure out what to do with their lives right now and for each of them the bottom line is “Take on massive debt” with Dad’s name attached or else.


I feel I went to college just before it all blew up. My first year at a major and highly-ranked public university cost approximately $2,100 in tuition.


I think unless you want to get an education in a very specific field at a specific type college you are much better off to spend 2 years going to a junior college and then attending the closest state college to your house, and then live at home. Maybe not the Animal House college experience but at least you don’t graduate with a $100k or more in debt.


Mind, even that can add up once you tack on grad school and the fact that many students take 5 years to wrap up rather than 4 these days. . .

. . . he says, thinking of his partner’s hilariously enormous debt from two public universities, both of which attended while living at home or with him >.>


My oldest graduated in 4 years from an out of town state college, after 2 years at a JC. My youngest did the JC and then went to the hometown state college, getting out in 6 years. Even at 6 years she was much cheaper. Room and board are killers.