(Photo by Alex Jones)

The cost of college rose by 1,120 percent between 1978 and 2012, compared with “only” 601 percent for medical care and 244 percent for food.

By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” the ill-fated Polonius warns Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “for loan oft loses both itself and friend.” No wonder more and more colleges are de-emphasizing Shakespeare–because a Polonian approach to finance would mean the end of higher education as we know it.

Total student loan debt in the U.S. now exceeds the gross domestic product of Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland combined, according to Quartz, and it’s not far behind the GDP of Canada. Forbes reports that a total of 44 million borrowers owe $1.5 trillion, with nearly 5 million borrowers in default to the tune of $88 billion. Two million of those debtors owe $100,000 or more apiece, while nearly half a million owe upwards of $200,000 each. The national average is $37,172 per borrower, and U.S. student debt per capita is about $5,000. Student loan debt is now the second-largest consumer debt category, trailing only mortgage debt.

As gruesomely arresting as those figures are, they should come as no surprise, considering the escalation of expenses. The College Board reports that the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2017–2018 school year was $34,740 at private colleges and universities, $9,970 for state residents at public institutions, and $25,620 for out-of-state residents attending public institutions. According to Bloomberg, the cost of college rose by 1,120 percent between 1978 and 2012, compared with “only” 601 percent for medical care and 244 percent for food.

A little anecdotal financial archaeology might be interesting here: Tuition for graduate students at a certain prominent Midwestern private college thirty years ago was a little over $9,000, while twenty-five years ago a particular large Southern public university cost around $2,000 in-state and $5,000 out-of-state for undergraduates.

An international perspective is also enlightening: Oxford and Cambridge, ranked number one and two in this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings, would cost an American about the same as the aforementioned national average for out-of-state tuition and fees at a public university. Cal Polytechnic and Stanford, ranked three and four, cost more than twice as much. Never mind that most teaching at Oxford and Cambridge is one-on-one or in very small groups.

But speaking of teaching, the number of full-time teaching staff in U.S. colleges has been static for many years, with more and more of the teaching load falling on the shoulders of part-timers who receive no insurance or other benefits and who generally are paid by the course rather than being salaried. Even so, costs continue to orbit the troubled sphere of higher education at ever higher altitudes.

What’s going on here?

Whole lotta administration goin’ on.

According to StraighterLine, about 75 percent of the total costs associated with a college degree relate to faculty and staff salaries. Higher education remains a labor-intensive endeavor. What has changed, greatly adding to the expense of it, is the staggering growth in the number of administrators. The Department of Education has reported that the number of administrative positions grew 60 percent between 1993 and 2009. That’s about ten times the growth rate for tenure-track faculty positions, according to The New York Times. Between 1975 and 2008, Cal Polytechnic added 405 full-time teachers–to go with 8,383 new administrators.

One could argue that much good has been accomplished by the creation of new positions in career services, counseling, academic advising, and tutoring. Nonetheless these things cost money–bales of it.

But faculty compensation is a factor–sometimes.

Despite stagnation in the hiring of full-time faculty, their salaries have played a role in the escalation of costs. Colleges often must compete with business and industry for talent in mathematical and scientific fields, and that takes not only salaries but the laboratories and other equipment that please those teachers. Their research assistants also have to be paid.

The competition isn’t like anything else you’ve ever seen.

In most spheres of economic activity, competition involves trying to price your goods or services lower than someone else’s. It doesn’t always work that way in higher education. Colleges understandably place great emphasis on the idea that a degree is an absolute necessity in today’s world, which enables them to charge accordingly. With cost often being an element in prestige, they sometimes compete with each other to see who can be more expensive, not less. And then there’s the competition for rankings. Money spent per student is one factor in achieving a higher ranking relative to the competition.

Talk isn’t cheap, including talking to you.

Marketing consultant Andrew Jensen reports that the cost of recruiting and acquiring students has increased sharply. With the growth of for-profit colleges that compete with traditional institutions, public and private, there are now more openings available than there are applicants. Jensen says that “colleges pay $35 or more merely for a new prospective student’s contact information. A long food chain of marketing firms and affiliates then take advantage of this desperation by using traditional and nontraditional techniques to lure unsuspecting individuals into submitting their personal information, which is then sold to these colleges.” Those colleges then pass those costs along.

High living has its price.

Not many years ago, a food court was something before which you might be summoned if you threw a roll (white flour only) or a plate of macaroni and cheese in a cavernous dining hall. Nowadays the college dining experience often has little to do with the chipped beef on toast, shepherd’s pie, and shaved turkey on bun that once were the norm in the era when a salad bar was considered dangerously progressive and overly indulgent of The Nation’s Youth. A high percentage of schools now offer all manner of healthier and more interesting options, served up in much more inviting surroundings–none of which is free.

Dormitory construction no longer appears to have been inspired by admiration for East Germany. Linoleum floors and cinder block walls have increasingly given way to carpets and pleasantly furnished suites, and everything is wired to accommodate omnipresent technology.

Fitness centers, recreation areas, and sports facilities have mushroomed on campuses in recent years. Athletic programs increasingly are used  to recruit non-athletes who crave ready access to high-prestige spectator sports, as well as fulfilling their time-honored function of helping secure donations from alumni. (Indeed, the impetus for the creation for intercollegiate athletics as we know it was to keep alumni interested in the old alma mater.) Nationwide, only 24 athletic departments under the NCAA umbrella are self-sufficient, and according to The Huffington Post and The Chronicle of Higher Education, from 2010 through 2014 public universities devoted $10.3 billion in mandatory student fees and “other subsidies” to their athletic programs. Non-athletes often have no idea that they are subsidizing the athletic department.

Federal aid increases the need for federal aid.

Econ 101: The ready availability of federal assistance causes students to be less concerned about costs in the near term. It also leads to more dollars chasing roughly the same amount of goods and services. Prices go up in a vicious cycle.

Concerned about the cost of college? TCE can help. In a big way.

The above list is by no means exhaustive, but it will suffice for a start. The proposal of solutions lies beyond the scope of this article, but what matters for most of us is finding a way not only to cope but to prevail. We at The Coaching Educator have nearly a decade of experience helping students and their families identify the right college, gain admission, succeed academically, and locate the necessary financial resources. To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

Recommended Reading About College Admissions, College Costs, and Financial Aid

Culp, Paul. “Eat Your Alphabet Soup: FAFSA, EFC, COA, and Other Delights,” The Coaching Educator, 6 November 2018, http://tce.local/2018/11/06/eat-your-alphabet-soup-fafsa-efc-coa-and-other-delights/

Culp, Paul. “Free College Wouldn’t Be Free. Is It Coming Anyway?” The Coaching Educator, 27 March 2019, http://tce.local/2019/03/27/free-college-wouldnt-be-free-is-it-coming-anyway/

Culp, Paul. “The Odds Are Good but the Goods Are Odd: 16 Unusual Scholarships,” The Coaching Educator, 12 October 2018, http://tce.local/2018/10/12/the-odds-are-good-but-the-goods-are-odd-16-unusual-scholarships/

Culp, Paul. “Part 2: The Odds Are Good but the Goods Are Odd: 10 More Unusual Scholarships,” The Coaching Educator, 20 March 2019, http://tce.local/2019/03/20/part-2-the-odds-are-good-but-the-goods-are-odd-10-more-unusual-scholarships/

Culp, Paul. “Ten Common Mistakes You Must Avoid in Applying for Scholarships,” The Coaching Educator, 6 February 2019,  http://tce.local/2019/02/06/ten-common-mistakes-you-must-avoid-in-applying-for-scholarships/

Culp, Paul. “Types of Financial Aid: A Very Short Primer,” The Coaching Educator, 14 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/14/types-of-financial-aid-a-very-short-primer/

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