Nedda Gilbert, MSW, Educational Consultant, and Author
Back in the day (this was 1976), my parents dropped me off at college with something called, "Bed in a Bag." It was from from Macy's and featured an all-in-one bedding set with coordinating quilt, pillow shams, and sheets. My parents bought me a typewriter and armed me with plenty of white-out. That was the sum total of what I brought to decorate and set-up my dorm room. I might also have been supplied a Marimeko print, a poster or two, and one hotpot. But college life was decidedly spartan, simple and straightforward. No one's dorm room looked like it belonged in a decorating magazine, or wound up on Pinterest. My parents helped me make my bed, took me out to lunch and went on their way. There was little fanfare - no elaborate orientation to attend, no big white tent where parents were served a buffet lunch and treated to a series of programs on college life, safety and academics followed by a dinner that evening and a picnic the next day. Nope - this was not a luxurious place - nothing spa-like or high-end about it, nor did my arrival there present a a pomp and circumstance moment. I quietly showed up, and found a place of serious study and no-frills.
Fast forward to college life as kids know it today. Freshman arrive on campus to a week-long blitz of festivities. Depending on the school, this may have been preceded by a college sponsored Outward-Bound-like trip or a special getaway for a specific major. Back on campus, students are greeted by amenities that look like something out of an all-inclusive resort. Whereas I trudged to one or two dreary food halls to eat bad food cafeteria-style, these days college students are offered a dizzying array of options - from sushi to Thai to gourmet gelato - all served in chic style. Uncertain of where you'll find the best food offerings and campus eateries? No worries, The Princeton Review and other publishers will happily rank the top college campuses for food for you. And if you happen to gain the dreaded freshman ten, no problem. Squeeze yourself into your LuLulemon's and head over to the college gym. There you'll find a state-of-the art facility, bathrooms with marble counter-tops, high-end workout machines and enough hot-yoga classes to melt away late night pizza binges. Planning an all-nighter? Make your way to one of several Starbucks on campus and caffeinate your way through a nite of study.
Right or wrong, this is college life today, and schools now pander to an increasingly demanding customer base that includes not just students, but parents. Two summers ago I attended a mid-summer orientation program at GW with a friend and her admit daughter. It was one-part business convention, one-part Broadway show, and equal parts pep-rally and overnight camp (parents stayed in hotels, kids brought their sleeping bags for dorm sleepovers), It was fun and informative - but whew - exhausting, and a bit over the top. As I sat through the many programs I realized college is really big business these days. Successful, popular colleges like GW, (to be fair they do an awesome job) have to be responsive to their customer base. And whether it's sushi, high end facilities, or an all-out parent presentation, this is what parents and kids want, and it costs a whopping amount of money to give it to them.
There's no doubt that fancy programs, luxurious campuses and other amenities can impact the cost of tuition. Also impacting overhead are sophisticated admissions campaigns so that colleges stay competitive with their Joneses, and public relations and marketing departments so that images stay polished.
But perhaps one of the most costly impacts on tuition has been the ballooning of administrative staff at colleges. Campuses have become bloated with layers of costly administrative personnel. According to the department of education, administrative positions on college campuses grew by 60% between 1993 - 2009. Likewise, seven figure salaries for college presidents and other high ranking administrative staff have become the norm and contributed to escalating costs. It used to be that college presidents were frumpy academics. But like the sophisticated college industries they run, college presidents are now more CEO and polished public figure, less limelight-shy professor. Overall, faculty salaries have stayed fairly stagnant, while big-buck presidents and their staff have continued to command sky-high salaries.
As for the impact of tuition discounts and the Federal Loan Program, unfortunately, they have not increased student enrollments, nor amounted to student success. The class of 2015 had the highest student load debt ever, and yes, the colleges take the hit. There is a correlation between every dollar provided for student aid and tuition increase.
How do we make college more affordable? One obvious and immediate area for improvement is a re-org of staff, reducing excessive administrative labor and running far more tight and lean organizations. Colleges have become incredibly inefficient, bureaucratic places. I also believe there should be more transparency in hiring, and caps on high ranking administrative salaries. As for providing student aid or tuition discounting, the answer is not to close the door to aspiring students, but to develop programs that invest in their successful outcomes.
It's not entirely clear why tuition has continued to rise. But as tuition costs continue to outpace inflation my feeling is that eventually the marketplace will speak. Currently we have a problem convincing young males that college is worth the investment and time - at present over 60% of the applicant pool is female. Like the real estate bubble, my sense is there will be an inevitable end to the college tuition bubble. It may not happen in a big burst, but in micro-bursts as more families make tuition a deciding factor and ask, is college worth it? When that happens, colleges will rightfully be tasked with figuring out not just what makes kids happy, but what they can afford. Forced to become more efficient and less greedy, colleges may finally embark on self reform, and importantly, tuition reform.