Suppose you wanted to go live at a luxury resort for four years. You’d expect that to cost, wouldn’t you? (No one is going to write an editorial raging about how if you wanted to live at Club Med it would cost you at least $50,000 a year – probably more.) So why are people surprised that it costs a lot – really a lot – to send a kid to college for four years? College is the sort of thing that seems like it should cost a lot: beautiful buildings on nice land, nice gym, nice green spaces, expensive equipment, large staff that have to be well-paid because they provide expert services. If you want to be puzzled about something, figure out how and why it was ever cheap, not why it costs now.
But this thought that colleges and universities are like luxury resorts, so of course it costs, is not very comforting to apologists for the cost of higher ed. Four years of resort living does not sound like a model that can, in fact, be available to everyone. If the democratic dream is that every kid can go to college, and if the dream of college is that every college kid can live for four years in the equivalent of an expensive resort, then the dream dies.
It has often been pointed out that universities and colleges are all trying to be Rolls Royce; no one is trying to be Kia. Existing institutions don’t compete on bottom line cost to students because cutting costs would undercut prestige and these institutions are competing to be prestigious; and, anyway, most students get some financial aid, so cost isn’t really transparent and you have a third-party payer problem, price-sensitivity-wise. Suffice it to say that a number of factors conspire to make it the case that the market for higher ed doesn’t look like the market for, say, cars, with luxury vehicles for a few and basically functional, affordable options for the masses. (No one wants to be the Crazy Eddie of Higher Ed: We’ve slashed tuition so much we must be insaaane! Nor do students or parents want Crazy Eddie, exactly. But no one wants to be crushed by debt either.)
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i'm the leftist liberal you've been warned about - the one who genuinely supports the expansion of the welfare state. i love politics and data and graffiti and street art and am far too lazy to use my shift key. if you need to reach me, you can email to abbyjean at the google email service.