• August 29, 2015

We Can't Afford to Be Quiet About the Rising Cost of College

Rising Cost of College? We Can't Afford to Be Quiet 1

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Demonstrators at Oakland City Hall, in California, last month during a national day of protest against cuts in higher-education budgets

"There are some things we feel, feelings that our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. ..."

That heartfelt plea for university reform, issued in 1969, is striking because it was voiced by Hillary Rodham, a student at Wellesley College. Are there any lessons or comparisons to be drawn from those turbulent times for the students and faculty members who are today demonstrating against the rising cost of higher education? As a student at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in those days and an itinerant sociologist at Scripps College now, I believe we can look to the past as legacy but not as blueprint.

The current generation of young people deserves admiration for the contributions they already have made: creating hip-hop culture, winning sweatshop-free purchasing agreements, leading online advocacy groups like MoveOn.org, and for being the backbone of Barack Obama's unprecedented volunteer campaign. They will be the cradle of social activism for the next 20 years. But the challenges they face on their campuses are far different from those of my generation, and perhaps more profound. Tuition at Michigan in 1960 cost less than $150 per semester. So I could obtain my degree, edit the student newspaper, go south to work in the civil-rights movement for two years, return and enter graduate school, and never feel that I was falling behind in the competitive economic rat race that young Hillary spoke out against.

Students today, however—even those who hold two part-time jobs—fall tens of thousands of dollars into debt, a burden that limits their career choices. Dropping out for social activism brings competitive disadvantage. The speedup of academic pressures dries up discretionary time that used to go to dreaming and exploring. Campuses are crowded with scrambling multitaskers for the most part too busy to protest the pace. Meanwhile, increases in the cost of college exceed inflation every year, intensifying the squeeze.

We had different grievances. The curriculum was often irrelevant to the social crisis we perceived ourselves inheriting; it needed reform. Students were powerless under the paternal doctrine of in loco parentis; we wanted rights. Students were disenfranchised, even though men could be drafted; we needed the vote and alternatives to the draft. Structurally excluded, we went to the streets, to the outside, demanding change on the inside. It's an exaggeration, but only after strikes, rioting, and taking over buildings did colleges offer the mainstream menu of women's studies; black, Latino and Asian studies; queer studies; and environmental programs that they do today. Now most students read Howard Zinn in history classes; back then Zinn was fired from Spelman College for marching with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

In those days, university administrators were personified by the impersonal managerial elites depicted by C. Wright Mills, our sociologist hero. In recent decades, the multiversity has been succeeded by a privatized hybrid institution enmeshed in Wall Street machinations, a development epitomized by the former Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers. Excessive financial risk-taking has resulted in depleted portfolios everywhere. No longer independent, higher education has succumbed to the political pressures of regents and trustees who all too often are tied to banks and corporations. For an example of this inbred conservatism, consider a recent survey that showed the public favoring the use of federal stimulus money to keep tuition down, even if that meant leaving less money for operations. In response, a spokesman for the American Council on Education said, "The public is not always right."

The question for today's students is not whether they can read Noam Chomsky, Anaïs Nin, or Zinn, but whether they can afford to. The recent outbreak of protests on hundreds of campuses is a promising sign that economic populism will be a central dynamic in any student movement of the future. Since many of the most active protesters today are students of color, there is greater potential for a coalition that includes inner-city taxpaying communities than there was when so many of the militants were from affluent suburbs. Making college less affordable just as a large number of qualified aspirants are emerging from disadvantaged minority communities is an explosive issue. The numbers of women in college are larger than in the past, which might also widen the coalition.

The value of the past lies in remembering how recently higher education was affordable, even cheap. It's not inevitable that a college education today costs so much. Undergraduate education is virtually free at the Sorbonne or the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and a year at Oxford costs no more than community colleges charge here. The choices we have made as a country—to relentlessly privatize our public institutions; to eventually spend three trillion dollars, by some estimates, on the war in Iraq instead of on our public universities; to bail out billionaires on Wall Street while hitting students and their families with repeated tuition increases—are choices with consequences that we have to rethink or accept.

As recently as 1982, when I entered the California State Assembly, my first battle as a naïve new legislator was against fee increases at community colleges, which then were proudly free and accessible. Under President Ronald Reagan and Gov. George Deukmejian, the (Republican) lobbyists for the colleges supported first-time fee increases to avoid budget cuts. Their motivation was not merely budgetary but also a matter of ideological principle. Nothing, they said, should be free in life, which meant that investment in public colleges and universities should be replaced by a consumer-marketplace approach. Most of the Democrats went along when they were promised that the fees would be temporary. When the recession of that period ended, those fees became permanent, and they have escalated ever since. A similar pattern has been true of tuition increases at California State University and the University of California.

Were I still in politics, I would run for office on a promise to keep the magical possibilities of higher education affordable for today's American families, and for the next generation seeking new opportunities for their children. I wonder why the silence from politicians is so deafening. Is it that colleges and universities are easier targets at budget time than corporate-tax loopholes are? Is it that students and faculty members are marginal players in the great game of campaign contributions? Or that college constituencies are too fragmented, divided, and transitory to unify as an effective force for change?

The recent discontent on campuses is a healthy challenge to America's priorities. I hope that Hillary Clinton hears an echo of herself before she and her colleagues become the politicians she warned us against.

Tom Hayden is a visiting professor of sociology at Scripps College, in Claremont, Calif. His most recent book is The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama (Paradigm, 2009).


1. honore - March 29, 2010 at 09:09 am

Tom, students, their lives, their realities are the least of the considerations of the fiscal bean counters at every campus I have worked on. Top salaries (including theirs) continue to swell astronomically (to be competitive, of course), chest-pounding goes un-checked by blow-hard administrators to justify absurd physical plant expansion and today that folly has been joined by ill-conceived off-campus expansion (China, Middle East...). Legal counsel units to cover-up indefensible administrative "misbehaviors/mistakes" continue to grow exponentially. Upper level administrative lackeys carrying the emporer's robes from dragging in the piles of crap they walk on, continue to spin mysteries on the desk of top leadership (to justify their do-nothing jobs) while the students they seldom gaze on outside their sparkling windows, work 2,3 & 4 jobs just to be able to buy SOME of their books, pay their rent and buy 12 packets of sodium-packed Ramen noodles for a dollar. And we still continue to spend even more money to conduct redundant "research" on why students continue to drop out of college (while in good academic standing)? America's elitist traditions are still firmly rooted in the contemporary academy and the size of the price tag only confirms this fact, regardless of all the feel-good shiny brochures touting "access", "supportive culture" or "caring about your education". The academy is long overdue for a grass-roots up-heaval. Imagine a campus without students for that reality check.

Oh, Tom, and "creating hip-hop culture" is hardly what too many would categorize as a significant contribution to American culture. Sort of like humane societies applauding Michael Vick for bringing pit bull welfare to the public eye, only less meaningful culturally...Madison, WI

2. lancers - March 29, 2010 at 11:47 am

"The current generation of young people deserves admiration for the contributions they already have made: creating hip-hop culture"

What part of the hip-hop culture can be admired? The word vile comes to mind. I would be interested to hear from a sociologist's view point what specific contributions could be attributed to hip-hop culture.

3. paievoli - March 29, 2010 at 12:14 pm

Could not agree more with this article. However we as a people neeed to take action in a significant way. We need to create a self-sustaining model that helps us to not need funding or increaed tuitions or whatever external source there is available. Very simple - harness the power of the generation and use it to generate funding that is returned to these institutions proportionately. This way the institution is funding itself - (too much with the passive commune references?)
Anyways - you were one of my heroes back in the day and still are. Please see my blog for furtehr information.


4. recoveringmba - March 29, 2010 at 04:57 pm

Tuition rates will go down when students refuse to pay the current rates.
Persistent government subsidies of higher education have had the (probably) unintended but foreseeable consequence of driving up the cost of tuition. Easy money has led many, if not most, universities to compete more on "features" (sometimes academic, often not) than on price. Universities are constantly seeking to capture more revenue to make themselves more excellent.

Affordability has two dimensions: (1) the cost of providing the education and (2) who is going to pay for it. Does Oxford or the Sorbonne cost less to operate than American universities or are they just more highly subsidized?

5. eflynn - March 29, 2010 at 05:18 pm

There's an important distinction to be made between the increase over time in the cost of higher education and the increasing share of that cost that today's students are asked to bear personally. In decades past, the significant difference in "cost" was specifically in what we as a society asked students and their families to pay. As a society, we were willing to subsidize higher education to a much greater extent than we are today.

What I find least compelling about the contemporary student protests over rising costs is the simple fact that most of these groups of students don't seem to know at whom they should be angry. It makes little sense for University of California students to gripe to administrators about the soaring costs they're being asked to bear. Mark Yudof and the regents at UC aren't raising fees in a vacuum. Rather, it's a direct and necessary result of the State of California gradually abandoning it's commitment to subsidize higher education of the citizens. Their protests all should be targeted at Sacramento and at fellow citizens of the state.

Since I was in college in the 80's, the overwhelmingly distinct difference in society then as compared to now, I would submit, is the proportion of dollars we spend on prisons. Sure, there are many other competing priorities as well, but this one is the great red herring. Here's the deal: as a society, over the last 30 years, we made a collective decision that locking people up for any and every offense under the sun was more important to us than other stuff. That's why we spend so much on prisons and associated stuff. Unless and until we figure out that it is more worthwhile, and much, much more efficient to educate the citizens rather than to imprison them, we're going to change nothing, absolutely nothing about the enormous burden of cost being shifted onto today's students and their families.

I think of these increasing costs as tax increases. That's what we do now, we increase taxes by imposing fees on isolated groups of service consumers rather than increasing taxes on the populace as a whole and sharing the burden for things like prisons, or higher education, or the state parks or, in my part of the world, snow removal. As we move further and further away from a government that provides these services to us all, while we all share in the cost, we will continue to gripe about the services we desire and for which we're now having to pay increased fees. And we will continue to stare dumbfounded when we see reports that compare costs per prisoner versus the costs per college student, the costs to society of a year of imprisonment versus a year of head-start.

This ain't rocket science. Oh yeah: and why do politicians continue to go this route? Because we continue to reward those who do and penalize those who don't. In short, over the last 30 years, we've gotten exactly what we've been paying for. Today's college students, today's college administrators, and today's concerned citizens need to work TOGETHER to protest their governments, and collectively insist that the society's money is far better invested in the students than it is in locking people up.

6. shakespeare76 - March 30, 2010 at 12:12 am

Thanks for writing this thought provoking article. I guess we as citizens of the world all need to reevaluate our priorities and assess whether we want Higher Education to be accessible to the masses or the elitist few.

7. amnirov - March 30, 2010 at 04:20 am

Speak about wrong and out of touch. Hip hop ossified in the late 1980s, no one under 40 has read Anaïs Nin in at least thirty years, most history classes do not routinely assign Howard Zinn. The only thing that the article got right is the utter irrelevancy of the 1960s. Well, even that characterization was far too kind considering that Hayden's generation is directly responsible for the nightmare facing not only all college students, but all human beings currently living on earth. Thanks, Baby Boomers, thanks for all of your crappy pot, worthless wars, unfathomable government debts, and a destroyed global environment. Hey Hayden, name a human problem not made worse by your generation.

8. freestatereader - March 30, 2010 at 08:08 am

Hayden contrasts the cost of tuition in the 1960s with what students pay today. I wonder if he views himself, as a "Visiting Professor" at what is likely a very high premium, as contributing to the escalation of tuition costs?

9. jwcarroll - March 30, 2010 at 08:27 am

The tuition in 1960 of $150 equates to $1,102 in today's dollars. The tuition figure used in this article is misleading because it is not adjusted for inflation. Still, $1,102 is a bargain versus what most pay today.

The inflation calculator can be found here: http://www.minneapolisfed.org/index.cfm

10. hoppingmadjunct - March 30, 2010 at 08:29 am

Not only are students having to work three or four jobs while they're in college: so are many of their teachers, 70% of whom are now hired off the tenure track, according to US Dept. of Ed. figures complied by the American Federation of Teachers. In 1975, those contingents accounted for just 30% of all faculty. Adjuncts of Tom Hayden's stature might make more, but many make as little as $2,000 per course. Despite the misconceived stereotype of college professors working just twelve hours a week, most faculty aren't seeing any of the rising tuition costs. In fact, as tuitions rise higher and higher, colleges are spending less and less on teaching.

11. eserfeliz - March 30, 2010 at 10:00 am

#1 - I was with you until I read this:

'Oh, Tom, and "creating hip-hop culture" is hardly what too many would categorize as a significant contribution to American culture. Sort of like humane societies applauding Michael Vick for bringing pit bull welfare to the public eye, only less meaningful culturally...'

How utterly racist and classist of you. Just because "hip-hop" is not something that you identify with culturally doesn't give you a pass to be derisive and dismissive of someone's else's choices in order to make you feel better about yourself. There are negative aspects of hip-hop culture, just as there have been negative aspects of many social movements over the years.

For you to reduce hip-hop to Michael Vick and pit bulls truly exposes your ignorance. Well done, showing bigotry on an educational forum.

12. 11185500 - March 30, 2010 at 11:28 am

As a senior administrator who eats 12-packet Ramen noodles to save time and money, let me appeal to "honore" and others of his mind set who are fixated on painting a picture of "bloated administrative salaries and power-grabbing presidents." We are you, and our cause is a shared one of bringing opportunity to future generations.

The fundamental problem is a political calculus that was implemented by Governor Reagan, perfected by Governor G.W. Bush, and since has become mantra for election and re-election of state executives. Simply put, it is "cut taxes without consequences." A voting citizenry that can suspend disbelief and turn a blind eye to the nexus between cause and effect; i.e., lowering taxes must be followed by rising tuitions...or reduced quality (which may be the cruelest tax on students)...is the root of the problem. Until and unless our citizens can recognize there are consequences to their voting actions the decline in public support will continue, the financial burden on individual students (or their families) will increase, access to education will decline, and our country will suffer in comparison to other enlightened societies.

It serves no purpose to attack administrators who must deal with the consequences of a political calculus gone awry. Worse, it creates a distraction from the real problem of political hucksterism that perpetuates dishonesty on a massive scale.

13. smcdonald999 - March 30, 2010 at 11:33 am

The primary forces inflating higher education costs over the last three decades have been precipitous declines in productivity rather than declines in state funding. Universities should stop complaining about declining subsidies until they start addressing their own contribution to the problem. Until then, we should turn a deaf ear to their self-serving arguments and stop subsidizing their bad behavior. Perhaps a "Race to the Top" is in order to hold academia accountable for controlling costs and putting student interests ahead of their own.

14. jffoster - March 30, 2010 at 11:39 am

While I wouldn't make quite the strong blanket comment of Anmirov's in 7, I agree with a good bit of his thrust. And, friend Anmirove, it's even worse -- Hayden isn't a Baby Boomer but a member of my cohort; the elder of me, even. He was born in 1939 I think and was an undergraduate in the early 60s like I was. So he's an, er, renegade from the tail end of what some call the "Silent Generation", the subset of us born during or immediately before or after WW II.

15. 11122741 - March 30, 2010 at 12:03 pm

of course free healthcare for the poor,a veritatble cornucopia of services for the undocumented and the elderly (I'm 68), massive increases in K-12 funding and numerous other expenditures (including research)and entitlements that dwarf the "war funding" have nothing to do with the diminished support for higher education and rising tuition costs; it's always "the war" ...yeah that's the ticket and problem; you've got it Tom, great analysis ...did you forget to metnion that only 15% to 20% participate in higher education in Europe and not the 50% to 80% here and the cost crunch that great scale difference inflicts; oh, yeah Tom, minor point. Or every higher education institution being the major cash cow for high tech and high tech companies as well as companies that want to get the public and parents to fund their R&D; right those costs have added nothing to tuitions; it's all bad endowment management. Such an inane and facile analysis makes me embarassed to be a member of the 60's generation. Out of touch then and out of touch now and not even near the ballpark of the roots and causes of the high tuition problems. Having been a poor blue collar kid who grew up in a project and had scholarships to top schools all the way to and including my PHD (while I worked those extra jobs),I have real empathy with talented, striving, students of merit today from less advantaged backgrounds who are going to be productive and contribute to wealth generation and who are not looking for Calvin Klien degrees and maybe that is why I am still teaching at a public university. Maybe the problem is that higher education is not and should not be a social status benefit paased out like designer emblems to every kid or an entitlement that a student recieves for a broad range of social factors other than acheievement, and I am someone who believes in education for its own sake, but one
does not need a university to become educated as such or liberally educated and particularly so today.

16. intered - March 30, 2010 at 12:10 pm

#13 is right. Today's professors teach 25-35% less than they did in 1950. The numerical value for productivity declines depends on whether you are measuring credit load or credits produced. At the same time, these professors are substantially more engaged in independent work for which they receive independent consultation.

There is a singular root cause of the decline in efficiency: Public and most independent institutions fail to manage their enterprise.

Ineffective management leads to several drivers of reduced efficiency and attendant increases in tuition. I'll mention one of a half-dozen major causes (in addition to decreased productivity).

In the markets in which we work, we see enterprise managed independents and for-profits (nearly 11% now, up from 0.5% in 1985) taking millions or tens of millions from the publics and slovenly managed independents every year. The rate of loss is increasing. One result of these losses is reduced efficiency necessitating tuition increases. The for-profits and well managed independents are interested only in stealing high-margin/high-volume business. When they succeed, the publics and poorly managed independents are left to deliver the low and negative margin programs with less money; hence, reduced efficiency.

There are other causes of the outsize cost increases at rates 2-3 times the CPI increases.


There is no rationality to be found hiding behind the HEPI. Contrary to the myth propagated around that index, at least 85% of the budgetary increases trace to endogenous sources; specifically, they are not, as some claim, beyond the control of the institution.


Robert W Tucker
InterEd, Inc.

17. psmack - March 30, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Here at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work we are actually decreasing tuition for out-of-state graduate students beginning in the fall 2010 semester by approximately $5,000 annually. Next year our tuition rate for out of state students will be approximately $24,000. Now I know that this is still a costly sum but it is a step in the right direction. Our plan for next year is to significantly increase our out-of-state student enrollment and maintain our targeted FTE goal. Currently our out-of-state applicantions are up compared to last year by 25%.


Philip S. Mack
Director of Admissions

18. gomiller - March 30, 2010 at 01:00 pm

I read Anais Nin in my freshman composition class at a large state institution. It does happen, amnirov (I'm 30 now, so this was 12 years ago...)

19. intered - March 30, 2010 at 01:22 pm

Phillip -- Can you share what is behind the U of Pitt SW tuition decreases at the financial level? That is, have you taken steps to decrease costs and/or increase revenue, especially cost per unit of service? I assume your program is ACSW accredited. Our view has been that the guild's requirements were designed to ensure job security for their members resulting in it being impossible for a Social Work program to be self-sustaining. This is weakening the guild but it takes time. If you guys are finding ways to become more efficient, many other programs would be interested in learning from you. -- Robert W Tucker

20. gadget - March 30, 2010 at 02:33 pm

When I was an undergrad and grad student at UT-Austin, virtually all my instructors were fulltime tenured or tenure track faculty. They were impressively knowledgeable, creative, and impossibly hard working. My children in college now have adjuncts at the lower division level, and for some upper division classes. It makes a huge difference in the quality of instruction, commitment to the students and institution, and the work that both the instructor and the student puts into each class.

My education was so much superior than that of my children.

I am not trying to bash part timers. I myself am a "full time" adjunct. I teach at two institutions, three campuses, and in three departments. I have no office and all my own work is on the back burner. I don't want to do this, but I look at each assignment in terms of how much grading I will have time for, which means I demand less reading, thought, and writing from the students. It is certainly far less than what was demanded of me when I was an undergrad.

The direct cause of this situation in Texas is the tremendous dimunition of state funding for higher education. Back in the 1980s, the state picked up most of the tab. Now state revenues are down to 20-30% of revenue. Cutting costs from the instructional budget, deferring maintenance, paying full timers less than market rate, paying part timers miserably, cutting benefits...Texas schools have (and are) doing it all. Even as we need to teach to the way the world is now and will be in the next 30 years, we have many fewer resources. Current students are being asked to pay a lot more for less.

21. jffoster - March 30, 2010 at 03:13 pm

Gadget (20) and all,
Re your last paragraph, it has been suggested that, possibly pace the very recent economic recession, the percentage of states' support to public universities and colleges' actual instructional and direct instructional support expenditures has not diminished very much, where it has diminished at all. It is the percentage paid by the states of total university budgets that has diminished notably. You all might want to take a look at Richard Vedder's "Going Broke By Degrees: Why College Costs Too Much".

22. honore - March 31, 2010 at 08:53 am

<Comment removed by moderator>

23. arrive2__net - April 01, 2010 at 02:55 am

Part of the puzzle in understanding the costs of higher education is that some of the tax-payer subsidies were, in effect, transferred from state-level subsidies of public universities to federal level Pell grants. Pell grants, distributed at the federal level, (in effect) help to make tuition revenue available to any kind of institution, public or private, whose students qualify, whereas state subsidies where mostly limited to state institutions. State-level taxpayers became more resistant to funding state university education when research brought to light how much those degrees were really worth in term of life time earnings ... poor tax payers started asking themselves why their tax dollars were going to subsidize the education of the future rich, when the future rich could just get loans and pay for it themselves. However recent research, such as that of Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid (cited in http://chronicle.com/article/Historic-Victory-for-Student/64844/) show that higher education has a remarkable return on investment for tax revenue, so that all of society tends to benefit in the long run, from economic opportunities and prosperity created by higher education. So it seems to me that making higher ed more affordable and accessible just makes economic sense. Research cited in this article (http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2010/04/01/28college.h29.html?tkn=ULUFLC1UuRzJ%2FAoIRy3CtsNw%2BoPS8NKglOz%2B&cmp=clp-edweek) shows higher education creates more of a prosperity benefit for low-income people and minorities.... so let's get those colleges funded!

Bernard Schuster

24. cfox53 - April 01, 2010 at 06:58 am

Haven't read all comments but I think a core issue in so-called 'escallating cost of HE' is the public view of HE. 40 years ago when I started my HE, HE was seen as a public good - and there was more money available as grants, scholarships, low-interest loans to the individuals and more government support to the institutions. Today, HE is seen very much as a private benefit - that is a benefit only to the individuals and not to the general society. This has resulted in much more of the cost of education being shifted to the individual, and, as in all consumer driven arenas, this has caused escalating demands for services and accommodations - look at athletic programs, dorms, etc vs 30 years ago

just a general though - often these discussions, including this one, go way off mark into the minutia and loose the larger, often more important, issue.

25. jffoster - April 01, 2010 at 07:24 am

25 (& 24), Vedder's "Going Broke By Degrees" I recommended above in 21 deals with this very thing, and suggests, contrary to the research reported by 24, that the Sovereign States may not benefit all that much from "investments" in Higher Education.

One factor that rarely comes up is the matter of upper middle class legacies. The UMC don't have enough wherewithall, i.e. "Verm"ogen" to bequeath to their children a confortable life. And they're apt to live "too long" for what they do bequath to help the young when most needed. What the Upper Middle Class and often not so upper have that has enabled their life style is a credential. But they cannot bequeath that directly; the best they can do is give the child /-ren a big hunk up front of their inheritance in the form of paying for higher education (&/or epensive prestigious private secondary schools.). The shift of public subsidy from States supporting mostly public higher education to Federal, supporting private as well (as 24 points out) becaomes a public subsidy added to the bequothen tuition the family can advance as tuition for Upper Middle Class children. (Much as vouchers for Secondary Schools.) Note that a State does a similar thing when it creates a "public Ivy".

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