Why Has Higher Ed Become So Costly?

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Go back to the mid-’60s in America and you’d find that college didn’t cost so very much and hadn’t increased much over time. There were no articles bemoaning the “unaffordability” of getting a college degree and politicians were not promising to do something about the cost. Now, however, college costs are a huge issue. They have been rising much more than general inflation, and millions of graduates (also many students who didn’t graduate) are faced with big loan debts.

What happened?

A recent study by Neetu Arnold of the National Association of Scholars sheds a lot of light on that. In today’s Martin Center article, I reflect on her analysis.

What I find especially worthwhile in her study is the way Arnold connects the rising cost of attendance with the evidence of decline in learning among college students. Higher-education officials used to have to focus mainly on the traditional mission of college, namely to ensure that students received a high-quality education. But once the gusher of money began, they were free to pursue a host of other interests, including political activism.

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And what accounts for that gusher of money? Arnold looks at the various excuses offered by the higher-ed establishment — that state politicians became cheapskates, that higher education suffers from a ‘cost disease’ and so on — and finds them unpersuasive. The one explanation that fits the facts is the “Bennett Hypothesis.” That is the argument offered by former Secretary of Education William Bennett that tuition started rising rapidly as a result of federal student-aid programs that put money in the pockets of students, provided that it was spent at accredited colleges.

Much of the increased cost of college is due, Arnold’s study shows, to administrative bloat. At many schools, administrative employees now outnumber the faculty. They’re paid very well to do jobs that have little or nothing to do with learning.

In short, college today costs a lot more and delivers less educational value due to government meddling.

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