Trying to unring the bell of high college costs


In the American conversation about whether college loans should be forgiven by the government, I’m not so interested in that part of the educational issue.

I mean, if I owed tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars from getting my undergrad and graduate degrees, which I happily do not and did not, I’d gladly accept the handout.

No, the thing of it to me is the outlandish cost of higher education these days in the first place. That’s what causes the need for loans that dog today’s students and threaten to send them to the poorhouse.

Princeton and Harvard cost about $56,000 a year in tuition alone, before room and board. For most students, need-based grants, not loans, cover a lot of that. But then Harvard is also ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the best value in college education, because a person makes a lot of scratch with a Harvard degree in hand.

Just don’t get me started, though,  about the rather less-valuable private institutions that charge nearly as much,  including the for-profit diploma mills that have scandalously also been able to offer federally involved loans for the privilege of ripping off college students.

It’s true that elite public universities that also offer good value are much more affordable, including my own alma mater, UC Berkeley, where annual tuition and fees are currently under $15,000. But add dorm living and eating and student health insurance — $4,000 a year! — and the price for being a Golden Bear goes to over $38,000 these days.

As one gets older, one endeavors not to sound like a codger crank. But the fact is that Cal tuition in my time in the mid-1970s amounted to $637.50 a year, and never changed from the time I was a freshman to when I graduated, paid for, God bless her, by my mother. A $200 check she burned me monthly paid for everything else — food, rent, books, gas for my car. That was it. I was grateful, but I did not feel guilty. It was all probably cheaper than having me about the house. The $15 I earned every week for writing a column for the Daily Californian was the beer money.

I had been told that one reason the dorms cost so much is that the meals are so much better now. But recently I was at a dim sum restaurant near the Berkeley campus and overheard two students eating with their moms and thanking them profusely for the treat. “Wait,” I said, table-hopping over to them. “I thought it was all sushi and salad bars these days.” “No,” they both wailed, “dorm food is terrible!”

Some things never change.

Out for breakfast the other day with an actual elite college president, Karen Hofman of ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, I had the perfect opportunity to ask why higher ed costs so much. Hofman is the perfect person because she herself got a B.S. in product design from ArtCenter in 1997, and then went on to be a professor, department chair and then provost at the school before last summer becoming its sixth president. She’s seen it all.

“Why does it all cost so much, now vs. then?” I asked.

“It’s because of the people costs we didn’t have back then,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of student services in my time,” including very many counselors. “We didn’t have the amount of federal regulation; accreditation needs were minimal. Now, we have an office of four people reporting out to state and federal agencies. All of the compliance we have to do, with how the school is running, retention, degrees, making sure the value for the tuition is there. Then, the financial side, student aid, it has only gotten more bureaucratic, what the government is asking colleges to do, especially this last decade. So that requires more staff to manage that.”

Prior to ArtCenter, Hofman played both basketball and volleyball at CSUN, and said she benefited from Title 9, which protects students from sex discrimination on campuses. ArtCenter has no student athletics — but still has to have a Title 9 office, with three people.

“It’s not a bad thing,” she said. “It’s just reality. We have a whole office of student experience. We are required to have advisement, both academic and career, and personal counseling — health and wellness, mental health. We have an office of four advisors making sure that students are doing well academically, if they need accommodation for a learning disability, or a physical disability. And that’s just part of it. But you start adding up all these resources — and, again, it’s for the health of the students; it’s great. But people ask, Where is all the tuition going, and it’s going to a lot of places that aren’t the classroom.”

For her peers at bigger colleges, even more staff is needed for “the operational necessities required to get federal funding,” Hofman said. “If you don’t do these things, you don’t have the ability to give student loans and scholarships.”

Even at ArtCenter, Hofman estimates there are 30 to 40 managers with non-academic positions that didn’t exist 20 years ago, when she began teaching. It all costs a lot of money.

So, it’s a Catch-22, one that, while making college better, also increases the need for student loans.

Is there a cheaper, more bare-boned, academics-only future for higher education? Maybe. But the bureaucratic bell has already clanged for colleges, and that’s a hard bell to unring.

Larry Wilson is on the Southern California News Group editorial board.



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