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price of a college degree
Chapel at Bates College (Photo by N.Y. Walton)

After days of news about spiraling tuition, increasing student loan debt, and worsening income inequality, higher-education experts met at a selective private college during the weekend to defend their costs—and argue that a degree is still worth the price.

“There is no crisis in college costs,” said Robert Archibald, professor of economics at the College of William and Mary and co-author of the book Why Does College Cost So Much?, who said price patterns for higher education were almost exactly the same as those of other service labor-intensive industries.

The symposium—held at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where tuition, room, board, and other expenses this year total $55,300, and co-sponsored by Brown ($56,150) and Northeastern ($51,362) universities—was attended by representatives of other public and private colleges and universities.

“We are the anti-catastrophists,” said Archibald’s coauthor and fellow William and Mary economics professor David Feldman. “We don’t tend to think that higher education is coming to a cliff and we are about to fall off of it.”

But he said public anger over costs could provoke accountability measures such as those imposed on primary and secondary schools, including standardized testing. To preempt this, he said, higher education needs to do a better job of providing data that show its value.

“Colleges and universities have to get beyond the old strategy of telling people how good they are,” Feldman said. “We need to shape the accountability movement rather than be shaped by it.”

Archibald said price patterns in higher education have been almost exactly the same as those of other service industries, using dental services as an example and plotting increases in the cost of each on nearly identical graphs.

Universities, he said, also rely on highly educated labor, which has become more expensive. “The success of colleges [in] producing graduates who can do well in the labor market is part of the reason their costs have gone up,” he said.

Higher costs are also driven by the need to add advanced technology, Archibald said, “because not to do that would mean a second-rate education.”

The usual reasons critics assume for increasing tuition—including administrative bloat and the cost of research—don’t pan out, he said. As proof, he said the rate of increase at research universities has been about the same as that at two-year colleges, which don’t do research, and that the number of secretaries and typists in higher education have declined at the same rate as in the general economy, while the number of computer, business, and finance specialists has increased at the same rate.

“I don’t think you’re talking about something that’s just happening at colleges and universities,” Archibald said.

“We’re not arguing that colleges are efficient,” he said. “We’re just saying they’re no more inefficient than they used to be. We don’t see any evidence that they’re getting worse.”

Moderator Jamie Merisotis, president of Lumina Foundation for Education and a Bates alumnus, said he remembered arriving at the college in 1982 when costs there passed the then unheard-of level of $10,000 a year.

But he said that, at a time when significantly more jobs require university degrees, and degree-holders make more money and suffer lower levels of unemployment, a university education is still worth it.

“Of course it is,” said Merisotis, whose foundation pushes for increased enrollment and graduation rates. “The question is, how will we afford these enormous benefits?”

Lumina Foundation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report.

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  1. Tuition, room and board in the 50s is simply not realistic for the vast majority of Americans. Going into extradordinary student-loan debt is not a good idea. Instead, students who are struggling to survive financially have to work hard and pay for what they can out of their own pockets and perhaps delay their degree completion – that’s the real crisis that most students and parents face today. BTW – dentists with decent practices make a fortune – their prices are inflated in my opinion. Comparing higher ed to dental services is really absurd. Let’s get real here folks.

  2. Consider the following information from an article published inside the recent October 31 issue of Time Magazine, appropriately headlined “I Owe U.”:

    “The cost of college has soared 538% over the past 30 years. That’s more than four times the growth of consumer prices and almost twice the increase in health care costs.”

    According to the Economic Policy Institute, “the wages of those with a college degree have been roughly flat for 10 years.”

    U.S. student-loan debt has exceeded credit-card debt for the first time and is on track to reach $1 trillion. College graduates in 2011 are labeled as the “Most Indebted Class Ever.”

    Increased college costs, more borrowing, and a lack of good-paying jobs could result in long-term stunted economic growth in the U.S. as “today’s grads end up being too poor to start a business or buy a house or send their own children to a university.”

    What does this all mean for the future of our adult society in the U.S.? Are we producing a large population of stressed-out, overly debt-laden people who can’t see the light out of their lower economic status, regardless of the degrees they earned?

  3. This article does not mention the real drivers of cost increase. At Bates (host of event) the following have changed in last 40 years
    Number of sections taught by professor went from 5 to 4 (loss of 20% productivity)
    Number of different classes taught by professor went from 4 to 3 (loss of 25% productivity)
    Days classes taught went from Mon to Sat, now Mon to Fri with Fri hardly used (loss of 16% productivity of capital plant)

    Meanwhile, no mention is made in article of percentage of retirement or health care paid by professors which has moved toward 100% for many of us in private sector

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