No College Cost Crisis?

by Robert VerBruggen

Stanley Fish offers a favorable review of a book that makes the case:

The causes of the increase in college costs (an increase that has not, they contend, put college “out of reach”) are external; colleges are responding, as they must, to changes they cannot ignore and still provide a quality product. Chief among these is the change in the sophistication and cost of the technology that has at once transformed the setting of higher education and become one of the areas of knowledge higher education must impart to students. Students expect to be instructed in the new technologies, and that instruction requires their installation, and then as new refinements emerge, their re-installation. “[A] modern university must provide students with an up-to-date education that familiarizes students with the techniques and associated machinery that are used in the workplace the students must enter.”

Were colleges and universities to strike a Luddite stance and hold out for pencil, paper and blackboard instruction, they would “in effect be guilty of educational malpractice.” When it comes to incurring these new expenses, they “do not have a real choice.” In no sense, then, are changes in price “driven by any pathology in the higher education industry.

I haven’t read the book, and this isn’t my area of expertise, but this just seems completely bogus to me. What technology are schools buying that they didn’t before, and that costs so much? In many fields, instruction is the same as it always was: teachers lecture students, students do reading at home, students take tests. Computers and computer software might play some role, but they’re not that expensive (and besides, students typically have their own computers, and it’s not like computers are new; my elementary school had labs 20 years ago). STEM departments (which teach only about 15 percent of students) might need more expensive tech than they used to, but that wouldn’t explain why costs are increasing even at colleges that focus on other areas.

Further, if you look at this report (pages 22 and 23), it seems that the percentage of college budgets that goes to instruction has declined since 1995, while student services and administration costs have risen.

Finally, this is just bizarre:

Usually the question asked is, “What percentage of a family’s income goes to the cost of higher education?” Archibald and Feldman prefer to “ask instead whether the amount left over after subtracting the cost of college is rising or falling over time.” The answer they give (buttressed by statistical tables) is “rising”: what their data show is that “over long stretches of time, college costs have been rising at a faster pace than income per worker, yet the average worker’s actual dollar income has gone up by more than the costs, leaving more resources on the family table to spend on other things.”

In addition to the overall weirdness of doing the math this way (you could argue that the “real” cost of just about anything is declining), the median income (as opposed to income per worker) has been almost stagnant for decades, so for the average family this likely isn’t even true.