I’m writing this week from the annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors in Washington, DC. One of the biggest issues under discussion is one familiar to anybody who is a recent student or the parents of a student: the “sticker shock” caused by sky rocketing college tuition. Tuition increases are the cause of student loan debt, and student loan debt nationally is now greater than credit card debt. Why has college tuition gone up so much faster than anything else?
As a college prof, I wish I could tell you it’s because we’ve all received generous pay raises. Unfortunately that’s not the case; in Georgia public universities, faculty salaries have been frozen for six years – no raises at all, including no “cost of living” increases. Travel funding has been slashed; I’m paying my own way to this meeting, and receive no teaching salary during the summer. So why has tuition risen rapidly over that same period?
The President of Winthrop University recently announced a 40% rise in summer tuition, effective this year. Since Winthrop is a public institution, there was a lot of posturing in Columbia about that – mostly about the poor way that the announcement was made, not why the tuition was raised; the new summer tuition rates are still lower than those at South Carolina and at Clemson, and Winthrop is not making a profit.
If faculty salaries haven’t gone up, and if public universities really are “non-profit,” then where is this increased tuition money going? There are really three answers, and as taxpayers we can control them all. First, the accommodations for students are much better than they used to be; that’s because colleges feel the need to compete with one another to attract students. Maybe that’s a good thing, but it comes with a cost. Second, although the “faculty to student” ratio has stayed about the same, the “administrator to student” ratio has gone up substantially in most universities. There are new colleges within many universities (including Georgia Regents University Augusta) requiring new Deans, Associate Deans, and Administrative Assistants. There are new support offices, counseling offices, and Student Activities staff. In many cases, though, there are about the same number of faculty and students; there are more salaried employees, but they aren’t teaching academic courses.
The biggest reason for tuition increases is not just that the cost of college has gone up – nicer living facilities, more administrative staff – but that the price structure has changed dramatically. Since 2008, South Carolina per-student support for higher education has dropped by 41.6% — the 3rd largest drop in the nation. That cost has not gone away; it’s just been shifted to tuition, and from there to student loans. If the state pays less per student and the cost stays the same, tuition rises to make up the difference. To repeat: the cost of college has gone up some. The price, on the other hand, has gone through the ceiling.
If you are contemplating sending someone to college soon, I’d urge you to look into that for every college you have in mind. Find out how much tuition is not only now, but also 5 and 15 years ago. Find out what has happened to the “administrator to student” ratio and to the state support per student, for those same years. And then ask our state legislative delegation the hard questions: Why the “sticker shock” of college tuition? Public Universities work for us. Legislators work for us, too. We can fix this problem. It’s past time that we did.