Unpacking the $60,000 Price Tag

The cost of attending college in the 21st century is a topic that we all love to complain about. I can’t tell you how many times I have overheard someone say, “I pay more than $60,000 to go to this school, why the f*** do they never have avocados in the dining hall?!”

As much as I love avocados—I am, after all, a true California boy—I think we as students often oversimplify the issue. We ought to start asking some tougher questions about why college has become so darn expensive.

In fact, most people don’t know the real reasons behind why the cost of college is rising so rapidly. When asked, our college administrators typically will give vague answers about “maintaining the quality of education” or  “increasing the caliber of our faculty.” But these aren’t exactly the most helpful answers when trying to understand the problem.

As reported by TSL in last week’s issue, here at the Claremont Colleges the cost of attendance will be (on average) a dramatic 3.9 percent higher for the 2015-2016 academic year. To be clear, that’s a staggering jump, and does not reflect normal annual inflation of the U.S. dollar.

So where exactly is all the money from tuition increases going? 

You might be surprised to learn that a lot of the money goes toward financial aid. According to a report published in The Atlantic, as much as 60 percent of the revenue collected from tuition hikes at private colleges goes toward increasing the resources of Financial Aid offices, helping bring down costs for students of lesser means. There are many students (in some cases a majority) who aren’t really paying the advertised cost of tuition.

Let’s consider Pitzer College, where roughly 39 percent of the class of 2018 is receiving some amount of financial aid.  Even though the total cost of attendance at Pitzer is upwards of $61,000, only three out of five first-year students actually paid that amount for this academic year. For a small college with an even smaller endowment, that’s not such a bad ratio, and is certainly an improvement from previous years.

But there is a lot more to this picture than just financial aid.

Although the official numbers have yet to be approved by the Board of Trustees, Pitzer College has proposed a 3.5 percent hike in the cost of attendance for the coming 2015-2016 academic year. This proposal would bring the tuition to its highest level in the history of the college. In addition to boosting financial aid resources, the new revenue will likely be used to increase staff and faculty wages by 2.25 percent, and would also allow the college to institute an $11 per hour minimum base wage for all employees.

Part of being a ‘successful’ college means hiring a lot of people: faculty, administrators, consultants, publicists and countless other staff. As the capacities and responsibilities of institutions of higher education have become more complex, the number of people employed by colleges and universities across the country has risen dramatically. These salaries account for the significant majority of most colleges’ total annual expenses.

It is important to also note that public universities have been forced to raise their tuition rates as well due to large decreases in funding from state governments. Over the past two decades, legislators in many states have chosen to cut funding for their public university system in the face of growing deficits. Public universities are grappling with how to keep up with rapidly increasing demand and rapidly decreasing external funding. Tuition hikes are usually the most convenient option for boosting their revenues.

Is it time to have a serious conversation about bringing down the cost of a college education? Absolutely. But it is important to remember that colleges are in a bit of a tricky situation when it comes to determining how much to charge students. The pool of applicants applying to colleges has gotten smarter and more competitive, and they continue to demand higher quality education. Colleges are aggressively competing with each other in an effort to attract more applicants, and that has unfortunately driven tuition and fees to unfathomably high levels.

That being said, I firmly believe that colleges must be held accountable for how they are prioritizing their spending. Most colleges are spending millions of dollars on the salaries of their top-tier administrators and professors. The high salaries of these employees put a considerable strain on college budgets.

How do we start to bring down the cost of college? It’s a complicated question because it doesn’t necessarily fit within the usual paradigm of ‘supply and demand.’ One might assume that as the cost of college has increased, the demand would begin to gradually decrease, but in fact, just the opposite has happened. 

Demand for higher education is greater than ever before in this country’s history, and it keeps increasing. People are willing to pay whatever it costs to get a diploma from the best colleges and universities, even if it means racking up large amounts of debt through student loans.

In order to lower the cost of education, the federal and state governments need to reprioritize spending and begin pumping more money into public universities to help bring down the cost of tuition. As tuition at public universities decreases, private colleges will have little choice but to lower their price tags in order to compete.

Having a conversation about the cost of college is ridiculously complicated, as it is nearly impossible to entirely capture the multifaceted nature of all of the expenditures and revenues that go into determining how much a college will charge for tuition, room and board. But if we are willing to take the time to better understand why the cost of college has been dramatically increasing, we will put ourselves in a better position to being able to reach a solution.

Chance Kawar PZ ’17 is a political studies major from San Diego, Calif. He currently serves as sophomore class president at Pitzer College.

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