The Corner

Why Does College Cost So Much?

One of the most popular articles on Digg yesterday was titled, “Why Does College Cost So Much?” — I guess it’s that time of year. The article was written by a pair of economics professors who have written a forthcoming book on the subject. The authors argue that the primary factors driving college-tuition inflation are:

  1. The labor-hours needed to provide this “artisanal” service have not declined;

  2. The cost of employing the highly educated workers needed to provide the service has gone up; and

  3. The cost of the technologies employed in higher education has risen faster than the cost of other technologies.

I’m interested to see what kind of evidence the authors provide for this thesis in their book, because I’m not at all persuaded by this article. The authors don’t bother to mention the argument, even for the purpose of dismissing it, that the primary factor driving college-tuition inflation is actually ballooning federal tuition support: Tuition keeps going up because the federal government ensures that students can afford to pay it.

The authors’ thesis is undermined by the fact that tuition inflation has kept up even at for-profit career schools such as the University of Phoenix and Grand Canyon University, which charge about the same as all but the most prestigious state schools charge their out-of-state students despite being mostly exempt from the factors that, according to the authors, are forcing state schools to raise their prices. The for-profits can afford to charge such high rates for their product primarily because they draw their students from low-income populations that qualify for large amounts of student aid. But empirical studies have found that all universities — not just for-profits — are quite adept at capturing federal tuition subsidies. The only exemption appears to be in-state tuition rates, which in most states are capped. 

Not surprisingly, the professors reject the idea of applying such caps more broadly: “Our story of rising cost is devoid of bad people making bad decisions,” they write. “This means that there are no simple fixes, like price controls, that would not also reduce the quality of the education we offer.” While they do not come right out and argue for increased public financial aid, that seems to be the inescapable conclusion of their argument, which is that 1) the disproportionate rate of college-tuition inflation is due to economic factors largely outside of our control, 2) mainly deriving from what a great product we put out, and 3) price controls are not the answer, so the answer must be 4) more financial aid to help families afford our expensive product. “We need to streamline [the financial aid] system,” they write, “and rewrite the funding relationship between public universities and their state sponsors.” I find it hard to disagree with that statement, but I don’t think we’re talking about the same thing. 

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More