College is Still Possible

The cost of college appears to be out of control, having risen four times more than inflation. College is now out of reach for many students. It is incumbent on colleges to get their costs under control, because they have allowed them to go wild.

But these statements are not nearly as true as they seem to be. The situation is widely studied by all sorts of people, and some of their conclusions directly contradict the common perception, as well as one another. It is not even certain that college is less affordable. My belief is that anyone who is scholastically capable and wants to get a college degree can get it, although it takes planning and savings. I also believe that college is not for everyone, but education is, and it can take many forms.

The economists Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman, in their book Why Does College Cost So Much?, argue that the entire discussion about college costs is incorrectly framed because it assumes a “dysfunctionality narrative”. That is, the assumption is that college costs are out of control because the colleges themselves are dysfunctional. This is not true, because most of the increase comes from economy-wide factors and conditions outside colleges’ control, one of the major factors being that federal and state support has sharply diminished. They further conclude that, even so, the cost has not removed college from the realm of possibility for most, because family money remaining after paying for college is actually increasing, not decreasing. That doesn’t make it easy, however.

One thing that appears to be certain is that Republican conservatives are utterly incorrect in their assessments and solutions. They all conclude that colleges have become dysfunctional, and must regain control before costs return to normal. But the main reason for colleges’ financial troubles is that federal and state monies have decreased at nearly the same rate as tuition has increased. The problem is country-wide, not campus-wide. All colleges dependent on government revenue are underfunded. Education in general has been under a sustained onslaught from the right, with repeated attempts to defund education at all levels, even while demanding improvement in educational outcome.

Politicians also tend to believe that colleges should be like they were when they went to college. But that would doom any college today to irrelevance. All colleges must invest heavily in current technology, for example, none of which existed then, for student instruction as well as for administrative function. And they must do so repeatedly, because technology quickly becomes obsolete, inefficient, and useless in the job world.

Colleges today have greater numbers of administrators, maintenance and technical personnel, and student services such as counseling, and are called to account if they don’t. If a college is to compete with others, and not become irrelevant, certain amenities such as student gymnasiums and modern dining facilities must be built, outfitted, staffed, and maintained. Many things are different from even a few years ago, and colleges must keep up or close.

One thing is certain: the increase in cost is not due to teachers’ salaries, which rose slightly more than the Consumer Price Index over the past two decades (4.5% vs. 4.1% per year).

California used to have an educational system, kindergarten through graduate school, that was the envy of the world. Since the passage of the citizen’s initiative, Prop 13, in 1978, the system has steadily declined, and now ranks below average, 34th out of 50 states. While there was good reason for public anger at the rising property taxes in 1978 that were causing people to lose their homes, particularly retired people, the whole problem could have been solved with modest legislation. But the legendarily dysfunctional state legislature did nothing, and Prop 13 became the law that threw the baby out with the bath water. It is still popular in spite of the many problems it has created, the most obvious being the destruction of the educational system and subsequent weakening of the state’s work force.

So what are the options for today’s students and their families? They are better than one might think, although getting what you want and need is likely to take patience and some ingenuity. Thank goodness for the internet, which allows you to have information at your fingertips that used to take weeks to get.

Here are some fee comparisons, as provided by the California 529 college savings plan. These fees are only part of college costs, but they do provide a comparison of annual primary costs at different kinds of institutions.

Community Colleges

State University System

University of California System

Independent Colleges (Median)





The 529 plan itself is important. By socking away regularly scheduled deposits to a 529 account starting when the child is young, a significant part of college costs can be ready when the student is.

Obviously, one plan would be to attend a community college for two years, then transfer. This is not foolproof, because community colleges are under the same funding restraints as publicly funded four-year colleges, and may not be able to offer crucial classes when they are needed.

It is not necessary for everyone to go to college. But it is necessary for every person to be educated for their own benefit, as well as to be an intelligent citizen and voter. College today is still within the grasp of most, but saving significant sums in advance is very helpful, as is flexibility in choosing where to study and how to reach your goal.

Published in: on 2011/10/04 at 5:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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