Monday, January 02, 2017


The Inevitable Question from Relatives

You can mark life stages by the inevitable questions from relatives at family gatherings.  I remember “where do you want to go to college?” and “do you play basketball?”  (Nobody who ever saw me attempt to play basketball, and there weren’t many, ever asked that question again…)  Later, it was “so, seeing anyone?” or, from Dad, “been to church lately?”  In my mid-twenties, it was “what is your dissertation about?” and “what are you going to do with that?”  After The Boy was born, it was “sleep much lately?”  

This year, as my generation’s kids approach college age, it was “hey, you work at a college.  Why do colleges cost so much?”

It’s better than the dissertation question, but not by much.

To be fair, the question had a context.  The oldest kids in the rising generation are already in college, and there’s a wave -- including The Boy -- not far behind.  The ones already in college are attending smallish private colleges that are reasonably respected, but not nationally known.  They feature sticker prices around 60k per year, though my relatives don’t pay that much.  

I didn’t have a quick and easy answer.

In the public sector, the quick and easy answer is cost-shifting and public disinvestment.  But that wasn’t what they had in mind.  I mentioned that, but they wanted to know about the private colleges.  Where did a smallish school with an okay reputation in an unexciting area of the country get off charging $60,000 a year?

At least with the dissertation question, I could try to bore them until someone changed the subject.  But when it’s your kid, and your salary, there’s a distinct lack of boredom.  

I didn’t go into Baumol’s Cost Disease, as much as I probably should have, because it would have required shifting into lecture mode, and that didn’t seem situationally appropriate.  (“Glad you asked.  Can we get a whiteboard in here?”)  The cost of health insurance is a contributor, though presumably it isn’t much higher for privates than for publics.  These schools don’t have high profile sports programs, so I couldn’t blame football stadiums.  I’m told the dorms are “fine,” but nothing extraordinary, so it’s not about living in the lap of luxury.  The usual story about lazy rivers and climbing walls doesn’t quite cut it.

I really didn’t know what to say.

The context is becoming more vivid, too.  The Boy is a sophomore in high school, with visions of med school in his future.  The Girl is three years behind him.  In a few years, I’ll start paying tuition, and will keep going for a while.  It’s not abstract.

And I say this as someone who eats, sleeps, and breathes higher ed.  I get more annoyed than most at the media barrage of “is college worth it?” articles written by people who went to college.  I’m always ready to combat the “elitist academic” label when used by self-styled populists to hoard wealth.  I’m an unabashed partisan of higher education, and have been for a long time.  My suggested changes to it are in the spirit of making it sustainable, and helping it fulfill its promise for even more people.  

Even with all that, I really couldn’t defend Generic Private College charging 60k.  I just couldn’t.  

I understand the value proposition of paying top dollar for a gold-plated degree, and I understand the value proposition of paying much less for a solid one.  But paying top dollar for a merely solid one?  I’m at a loss.

The industry insider in me knows that many of those colleges survive by playing a sort of Russian roulette with discount rates, but I wonder at the sustainability of that.  When you’ve effectively hit the point at which your entire tuition increase simply goes to discounts, you’ve hit the revenue ceiling.  

Part of the pain of inevitable questions is that they usually include a recognizable grain of truth.  My relatives’ question did.  And as someone who will start footing tuition bills sooner than I want to admit, they had a point.

So you didn't dare use your fall-back argument with people you know well?

Would they ask you how those faculty salaries and teaching loads and research value to the nation compare to your own? Are there adjuncts? Did the parents choose the place based on the student-faculty ratio? On the quality of individual, well-paid profs? (I have no idea if those places get in a bidding war for new faculty. I do know that our faculty can and do move for money and location, but the increases are not huge.)

But don't ignore sports. Even a low-cost program is quite expensive, but supposedly paid back by attracting HS athletes who want to keep playing. (I have no idea how my CC justifies its athletic program, but I can see the small college argument.)
I mentioned that, but they wanted to know about the private colleges. Where did a smallish school with an okay reputation in an unexciting area of the country get off charging $60,000 a year?

I had this conversation with a guy on the plane the other day, and I observed that there's a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is to ask a question: Is he willing to pay for his daughter's expensive private school tuition? He said yes. That's part of the reason private schools cost so much: People are willing to pay.
I want to circle back to the athletics question, although athletic programs are unlikely actually to be a major driver of tuition increases.

Even at fairly small schools, athletics have taken on an increased importance. My first f-t teaching job was at a small school in West Virginia. When I was there, the school had a very limited set of intercollegiate athletics programs--soccer (men only), basketball (men only) and track (men & women). The soccer field had no scoreboard and no permanent seating. And virtually all the events occurred within West Virginia--travel was limited. Today, the school has 20 intercollegiate athletic programs (10 for men, 10 for women), and (according to a friend and colleague there) nearly half of the students participate in an intercollegiate sport. The football team regularly travels to fairly distant schools (9-12 hour bus trips) and has become something of a small-college football power. My guess is that, while enrollment has gone from about 800 in the year I taught there to about 1100 now, the athletic budget has increased by at least a factor of 10. And a fair amount of the school's fundraising over the years has gone to building new athletic facilities.

I don't think this is necessarily typical, but it's also almost certainly not all that unusual.

Part of the growth was driven--entirely appropriately--by Title IX; there was never much excuse for having no (or really limited) opportunities for women (relative to those available to men). But part of this is also a change in the way in which schools perceive--and market--themselves.

JSeliger: You answered the question. It's costs that much because people are willing to pay that much. I work at a small SLAC. We are the second choice for our first choice students and they are still willing to pay. There is talk about the safety and community of a small campus (um no) and academic rigor (no more so than anywhere else) but I think it comes down to a label.

Dead Dad: I hope you would be counseling all your family and friends on the wisdom and benefit of a solid 2+2 plan. One of the main reasons I stay in higher ed is that I know I'll have to pay for college some day and I'd like it to be free for my son like it was for me. If I worked at a CC, you bet your sweet bippy unless he got a free ride somewhere else he'd do 2 very organized years, get his AA and then transfer.
I always thought that part of this is the whole Declining Real Wages problem (Wages Increase Less Than Inflation).
I think I even saw a link somewhere that said that the cost of education, corrected for inflation, had NOT increased. It's just that our wages haven't increased at the rate that inflation has, so we've able to buy less (i.e., we've got declining real wages)
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