The real cost of college

| February 15, 2010 | 3 Replies

Bob Samuels puts the numbers on the table. Here’s what a student (and his or her parents) are really paying for when they fork over huge chunks of tuition to a prestigious college.

[T]he reasons why the numbers never add up in higher education is that universities and colleges use a false and misleading method to determine the cost of undergraduate instruction. Many institutions calculate this important figure by taking the total cost for all undergraduate and graduate instruction, research, and administration, and dividing that cost by the total number of students. Schwartz argues that this common method for determining cost is misguided because it assumes that all students will be taught by professors and that there is no difference between the cost of undergraduate and graduate education. In other words, when a university or state calculates how much it has to spend to educate each additional student, it includes in the costs, the full salary of a professor, but everyone knows that at research institutions, professors only spend a small percentage of their time teaching undergraduate students. According to Schwartz, parents are really paying for the cost of undergraduate instruction plus graduate instruction plus research plus administration. To be precise, undergraduates are subsidizing the cost of research and graduate education, and no one admits this fact.

I think that he leaves out another big factor in his informative post. Many people pay big money for prestigious colleges because they want their children to attend school alongside other people who can pay big bucks to go to a prestigious college. Why is that important? Why isn’t their only one goal to become smarter, which many people do by self-study? In Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior (2010), Geoffrey Miller explains that universities are often in the business of “educational credentialism.”

Harvard and Yale sell nicely printed sheets of paper called degrees that cost about $160,000…. alumni of such schools . . . work very hard to maintain the social norm that, in casual conversation, it is acceptable to mention where one went to college, but not to mention one’s SAT or IQ scores. If I say on a second date that “the sugar maples in Harvard Yard are so beautiful every fall term,” I am basically saying “My SAT scores were sufficiently high (roughly 720 out of 800) that I could get admitted, so my IQ is above 135, and I had sufficient consciousness, emotional stability, and intellectual openness to pass my classes. Plus, I can recognize a tree.” The information content is the same, but while the former sounds poetic, the latter sounds boorish.

Miller also has a lot to say about conspicuous consumption in his book, and it should be another factor for why so many colleges can get away with charging immense amounts for education without justifying those amounts. It doesn’t hurt the universities financial condition that the ability to pay exorbitant tuition is a plus for many parents. It is boorish to announce one’s high salary at a social function, but it is quite acceptable to drop the following in conversation: “Tuition is coming due for my two kids; one is at Harvard and the other is at Yale.” Mission accomplished, because you just announced to the world that your kids both have the minimal intellectual and social requirements for entry at those institutions (and they got those genes from you!) and that you have the financial wherewithal to pay for all of that tuition.

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About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Of course the students pay for running the school. That's the way it's always been done. Except that the cost of research primarily switched to government and corporate grants following WWII.

    In St. Louis one asks, "What high school do/did you go to?" This returns about the same sort of socio-economic info as the college question. It is a work-around of the anglo-Puritan prohibition of directly asking about ones means.

    One advantage of a fancy school is to be surrounded by other students who will challenge one. I learned a lot by helping fellow students with their homework in tough classes that I hadn't taken. I'd have learned less in a school with lower standards, even were the faculty just as sharp.

    It seems to me that you get what you pay for. But you also earn what you work for.

  2. Erika Price says:

    It's true! For years now I've described education in psychology as a pyramid scheme. Undergraduate psych majors number millions, and they provide the foundation of research participation, tuition payment, graduate school application and field interest upon which psychology departments are built. Simply put, psychological academic institutions could not function if we did not have far more Intro Psych students than we had Psych majors, far more Psych majors than we had Psych grad applicants, and far more Psych grad students than faculty spots. The success of each professor relies on the joint efforts of several grad students and teaching assistants, and hundreds upon hundreds of misguided, tuition-paying undergrads. This observation applies to most other academic fields. And I hate it.

    If college was not considered compulsory, the pyramid scheme would crumble and we would return to a less-populated field, which would only feature those brilliant and disciplined enough to succeed of their own volition.

  3. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Bloomberg headline today: "Your taxes supporting for-profit firms as they acquire colleges":

    The nation’s for-profit higher education companies have tripled enrollment to 1.4 million students and revenue to $26 billion in the past decade, in part through the recruitment of low-income students and active-duty military. Now they’re taking a new tack in their quest to expand. By exploiting loopholes in government regulation and an accreditation system that wasn’t designed to evaluate for-profit takeovers, they’re acquiring struggling nonprofit and religious colleges — and their coveted accreditation. Typically, the goal is to transform the schools into online behemoths at taxpayer expense.

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