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Why Does College Tuition Only Go Up?

Nov 25, 2011 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 1 Comments

If you’re looking for something to depend on in today’s unpredictable economic climate, look no further than college tuition. It only goes in one direction—up—and it’s done that for the past 30 years. It’s six times more expensive now to go to college than it was in the early 80’s—despite the fact that consumer price indexes, inflation, and wage growth has not kept pace. In 2011, private colleges have raised prices 4.3%, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities --a low increase compared with previous years, but still ahead of inflation and wage growth.

Why is it that colleges keep increasing prices?

Even in a stagnating economy where even middle-class families struggle to afford tuition and increasing student debt is creating publicity problems in the news for the nation’s most expensive colleges, prices don’t seem to be leveling off—let alone going down. Here are just a few reasons why those prices keep going up.

Because inter-departmental politics are heavily entrenched


It’s not easy paying for college. But colleges often stand by their tuition hikes, claiming they need to raise prices in order to stay competitive.



The New York Times reports that administrators are often reluctant to cut departmental funds because of interdepartmental politics—if you annoy a professor with tenure, that conflict will stay with you until the person retires. This may be a reason colleges are often reluctant to cut departments that are expensive but attract a low number of students.

Because the prestige game prioritizes research

Competition for top-ranking spots is fierce among top universities. Professors are often hired more for their research record than their teaching skills. And to attract top researchers, many universities offers high salaries and low teaching workloads. Some professors at top research colleges teach four or fewer classes per year and have the option of taking yearly sabbaticals—all benefits that make the cost of retaining them more expensive. Colleges have difficulty cutting these benefits to save families on tuition costs—because then they wouldn’t be able to retain those top researchers. If they lost them to other schools, the college would lose prestige—and its competitors would gain.

Because administrative costs keep going up

Many colleges spend more on administrative than on professor salaries. To compete among schools, many colleges add career placement centers, mental health counselors, security personnel, professional chefs for the dining room—the list goes on and on. Making cuts in these areas means fewer selling points for students and families on college tours and in brochures.

Because they have to attract top professors

In some fields—particularly in business, science, and economics—top-ranked professionals and researchers have plenty of lucrative opportunities in the private sector. To compete in attracting the best faculty, colleges have to offer salaries that are competitive in those fields. Humanities professors don’t have those private-sector opportunities, however—which is why an economics professor might earn $100,000 per year and an English professor might earn $60,000 at the same school.

Because technology doesn’t necessarily reduce costs

Technology, according to this article in Forbes, isn’t usually applied at top schools in a way that lowers costs. For example, most Ivy-League schools don’t rely on online education to administer full degrees, lowering overhead costs—although some do. However, almost all Ivy League schools have to keep their technology offerings up-to-date for students—meaning ordering the expensive, cutting-edge lab equipment so students can learn to use it, rather than relying on the inexpensive low-tech option.

Because comparison-shopping is notoriously difficult

It’s not easy for students and their families to pick a college based on the tuition rate. Families usually don’t know the real price they’ll be paying until they’ve gone through the financial aid application process—making it difficult for families to narrow down lists of schools based on price alone. And the sticker price is often complicated by the amount of student loans families and students can get and interest rates over years—further de-clarifying the issue of how much each college will cost. Not to mention, yearly tuition hikes make ongoing costs difficult to predict. Many families start out trying to choose responsibly based on price, only to find it’s much more difficult than they thought.

Because they can

This may be the biggest reason why colleges keep raising costs—they’ve had no consumer pressure to stop. That’s because the federal government and private lenders usually ensure students can go to college at almost any price, regardless of income level. Unlike the prices of goods and services in many other industries, colleges haven’t hit a ceiling where large numbers of customers flat-out refuse to pay—or can’t afford to pay—as much as they’re charging, due to federal and private loan aid. With student loan debt such a prominent problem lately, however, colleges may be beginning to run up against this barrier.

It’s not easy paying for college. But colleges often stand by their tuition hikes, claiming they need to raise prices in order to stay competitive in today’s cutthroat academic environment. Regardless of the reasons, it’s likely college costs will continue to rise for some time to come.


Phil Shapiro Over a year ago

This is a thoughtful article that describes a regrettable situation. Perhaps the best hope for college tuition to go down is when an increasing number of students stand firm and say, "I don't need to go to college. I'll educate myself just fine, thank you." Let's hope that time is coming.

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