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.