A question comes up pretty often in diaries like this one. Yes, college is expensive, and I wish it was more affordable. I will offer here a list of reasons, with some illustrations and reflections. My disclaimer is that I am a professor in a humanities field at a private university (the expense of college is not because of the salaries of people like me).
Some things below are more true at one place than another. E. g. the way the money works at a public institutuion is different from the way it works at a private one. With some adjustments from place to place, though, I think the factors below hold up pretty well.
So much of this is driven by the U. S. News and World Reports rankings, that I need to mention this at the start, because it is part of the necessary framework for thinking about everything below. These rankings were first published in 1983, skipped 1984, and have been published every year since. Look at those categories. Every school out there is working very hard to improve its numbers in every one of those categories - it has a strategic plan to do so. Raising each of these numbers costs money, serious money.
I. Sticker price as a sign of prestige. Many colleges and universities have deliberately raised their prices because it increases their perceived quality. Who wants a cheap education. This a function of the switch over to a consumer mentality about higher education(a theme I will come back to a number of times) that, as best I can tell, really took off beginning in the late 1980's - no coincidence that this corresponds to the rise of the U. S. News Rankings.
Hint: Here is a way to keep your costs down. Go to a school where your test scores are above average. Of course, this means that you are not going to the best school you got accepted by, but if you are in a fairly standard "arts and sciences" kind of field, then I believe the ducation you get at a school with an Average ACT of 24-26 is just as good as at the school with an average of 27-29. So, if you have a 28, go to the former
For many students, this means that college is not as expensive as it looks. Most students are not paying the sticker price. Who does? The weakest students at each institution. Here is how it works. If a school has an average ACT of 26 (Remember this is a U.S. News category, so the school is deperate to keep it high), then they have to recruit students with scores higher than 26, and they do this by offering tuition discounts. If you have a 30, then this school will give you a big discount (50% of tuition or more) because this lets them bring in two 24's and keep the 26 average. The two 24's will pay full price, or close to it - the inflated sticker price allows the school to offer them a small "scholarship" of perhaps $1000, which gives them, their parents, and their high school something to brag about.
II. AP credits. This one may be a surprise, but unless you can cut off whole semesters of school with AP credit, it is raising the price of your education - here is why:
These numbers are generalized and simplified, but I think they will hold up as approximations. If you take university department expenditures (e) and tuition revenue generated (r) by courses in that department, and calculate ratios of e/r, you will get numbers like this:
Humanities and social sciences .25
Mathematics and foreign languages .30
Fine arts .90-1.00
Specialized professional programs 1.00+
Where are most AP credits earned? In the courses that are the cheapest to teach.
I realize that it can still save money for individual students to use AP credit, but in terms of the total cost of college for everybody, most of that savings is lost, and the average cost per credit hour has to go up, way up. My own estimate is that the actual cost of first year of to the school is probably around 10% of the four-year program, and the second year not much more, yet the school charges almost the same price for each year (in some cases there are course fees associated with more advance courses that change this equation a little bit).
III. College is way nicer than it used to be. I know this sounds like "Back-in-my-day..." complaining, but it is demonstrably true. I am tempted to link to or embed material from a college website, but I don't want to pick on anybody. They all do it. My college cafeteria had one choice of entree each meal eat it or don't. You will be hard-pressed to find a college cafeteria today with less than ten. The average square footage of dormitory rooms has gone way up, and the dormitories a much nicer. Have a look at this if you don't believe it. This carries through into programming. I know of one college administator who actually refers to himslf as "The Vice-President of WOW!" Colleges and universities are now expected to program a student's whole life, not just provide a room to live in and some classes to attend.
IV. Technology. This is only one example of a new cost for colleges that is most visible. There is now a new computer every 3-4 years for the office or desk of every faculty and staff member, plus hundreds more in libraries and computer labs. There is now a computer projection system that costs about $15,000 fully installed in almost every classroom. Along with the machinery comes dozens of staff to service the systems and machines and to train faculty and staff how to use them.
V. Pedagogy This has changed drastically. Experiential learning, service-learning, inquiry or problem-based learning, undergraduate research, study abroad, etc. have all become more prevalent, and these are all very expensive to implement. In addition to the direct costs, my school has a teaching center, with three staff persons and a large programming budget, to help keep faculty up to date on teaching methods and innovations. This was unheard of three or four decades ago.
VI. Ways that above factors combine. Retention rate is one of the most important statistics for colleges now. It is the percentage of first-year students who return for their second year. 80% is something of a benchmark. There are a few schools that manage to get above 90%. It is vital because it is a U. S. News category by itself, and it is a direct determiner of graduation rate, another very important U. S. News category. It is also a big deal because it is so hard to raise it. Students transfer out for a large number of reasons - lack of money, changing majors, dissatisfaction with housing, academic problems, etc. Improving retention requires improving everything the university does, all at the same time. It also has to be sustained. The U. S. News numbers are a six-year aggregate. If I raise my retention rate by 6% this year, then it will result in only a 1% rise in the rate reported. I would have to raise it by 6% this year and hold it at that level for five more years to see the number go up by 6%.
Fifty years ago, poor retention rates and poor graduation rates were fine. Nobody paid any attention to them and schools made a lot of money on dropouts. Remember from above, the first year of college is much cheaper to produce than the fourth year. If you have can sell a lot of first years and far fewer fourth years, all at the same price, then you could make a lot of money. Today, if your retention rate is poor, then you will have trouble recruiting students in the first place, because everybody knows what it is.
No doubt, there is plenty here to question and critique, and I welcome that. I have blamed U. S. News and World Report a lot and this may or may not be fair. There are other sources of such rankings, but this is the one that university administrators pay attention to. It may also be true that this ranking system was, in part, a response to a societal force that would have been present anyway, so there may be differences of opinion over the extent to which it causes, or merely reflects, the problem. There was a movement toboycott them a couple of years ago, but it does not seem to have gained momentum. Much of the data is self-reported, therefore, suspicious, and there have been cases and accustions of cheating, including one recent case at a prominent school.