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The Cost of College

Getting a college degree used to be like buying an expensive car. Now it's like buying a house.

12:00 AM, May 12, 2004 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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OUR DAUGHTER is to be graduated from high school this spring and will go to college this fall. That means, of course, that she applied and was accepted somewhere--actually, a number of places.

As those who have trod this path know, the college application process takes more time than you ever figured it would. It also is unnerving, since you (and your hopeful senior) don't know who will say yes.

Of course, the reward for getting in and then deciding to go to a particular school is formal notice of the price that is to be paid for the first year, which usually is printed out on a separate sheet of paper or card that has been thoughtfully enclosed in the letter extending admission.

It is upon reading the numbers preceded by the dollar signs that parents no longer can avoid recognizing what college is immediately going to mean. The College Board reports that the average cost of the current school year (including tuition and fees, books and transportation, room and board) is $13,833 at a state university and almost $30,000 at a private college.

If the past is any guide, those costs will rise next year and the next and the next. The $50,000 baccalaureate at a public school soon will cost more than that, while the $120,000 bachelor's degree at a private school is here today--but only if you prepay the whole amount.

College no longer is like buying an expensive car but, rather, like a house--or houses, depending on the number of college-bound children in the family and the schools they go to. The College Board admonishes sticker-shocked parents (and students) to "consider college an investment" and informs that the gap in earning potential between a high school diploma and a bachelor of arts degree is more than $1 million. Fair enough. Yet that doesn't answer the question of why it is that college must cost so much.

That question seldom is addressed in the materials that colleges and universities send to prospective students. Instead, you get advice on how you can pay for the higher education your young scholar will receive. The advice includes an exhaustive discussion of federal aid, which has climbed to record levels, though more of it is in loans than grants.

The few people who have studied the question of college costs and prices seek to identify "cost and price drivers," as they call them. They look at federal grants and loans (on the theory that to subsidize X is to drive up its price), construction, computers and related technology, government regulation, and changes in the composition of the groups of people who make up a given school--students, faculty and administrators.

To my mind, the most persuasive explanation of why college costs keep rising is the qualitative one of the expectations held by those three groups.

A FEW YEARS BACK, a national commission on the question of college costs observed that prospective students visiting a campus expect to see gyms equipped with state-of-the-art exercise equipment and facilities, a complete range of course offerings, dormitories wired for computers and stereos, and counselors who can advise on personal as well as career matters.

Meanwhile, the commission also pointed out, professors have their own expectations about teaching and research. And administrators often want to add entire disciplines that didn't exist a brief while ago. The commission surely was correct in concluding that "the accumulated effect" of the various expectations "is continual institutional pressure to increase spending."

Unfortunately, there seem to be few incentives to achieve efficiencies. Indeed, the Hoover Institution's Chester E. Finn Jr., one of the nation's keenest students of education, observes that higher education is the one place where there really are no productivity gains, notwithstanding that we have an economy that is growing mainly as a result of improved output per unit of worker input.

You may have noticed that the issue of "college affordability" has entered the presidential race. Unfortunately, the proposals by both John Kerry and George W. Bush would do nothing, really, to change the upward trajectory of tuition, fees, and the rest. But count me as someone with more than a passing interest in how the cost and price of a college education might be contained. After all, I will have to write that first check soon enough.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard. This column originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.