How accurate are the various theories accounting for the rising cost of college (from the latest, changes to the Federal Student Loan Program, to old standbys like tuition discounting or administrative salaries)? What, if anything, should be done to make college more affordable?

The rise in college tuition, which has significantly outpaced inflation, has been attributed to a range of factors, including compliance with increasingly complex government regulations, failures in K–12 education and the need for remediation in college, tuition discounting for students with demonstrated need, hefty administrative and faculty salaries, and increasingly luxurious campus facilities. A new study, however, finds that changes to the Federal Student Loan Program and, more modestly, in the college earnings premium, can more than account for the rise in college tuition.


Nedda Gilbert, MSW, Educational Consultant, and Author

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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.

Erin Sharaf, Former Professor of health sciences

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As a former professor, I concur with everything Nedda shared. I went into it with a desire to educate students. I was shocked by the mercenary nature and big business of it all and how we almost never discussed the students unless it was in regards to their tuition dollars. It was clearly a business first with a distinctly ruthless corporate mentality. The students and professors just felt like pawns in a giant game with giant egos running the show. Money and power were the name of the game. It was a very "top-down" mentality with a lot of politics, grandstanding and deal-making. I do feel that "higher education" is somewhat of a dying industry. It hasn't been able to adapt to the rapid changes and needs of society. The information/knowledge can be delivered much more cheaply and efficiently without the expensive real estate, bureaucrats, and amenities. As more and more people reject this obscenely expensive option and go on to thrive, college will stop being seen as a "must-do-to-be-successful" and something new and more enlightened will take its place. There are more and more options popping up all the time.

Carrie Hagen, Nonfiction Writer and Researcher, Teacher

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Nedda gives an excellent summary of the "various theories" and practical findings behind rising costs. I'll speak to "What can be done to make college more affordable?" Many families and prospective students need to adjust how they think about community college, or more affordable branch campuses of larger schools (like those found in the Penn State system). I understand that students want to leave home as soon as possible, but sticking around for another year or two can greatly lower the amount of student debt a family or individual assumes. Once they have the diploma in hand, nobody needs to know where students began their degrees if that is, unfortunately, a point of concern.

Nedda Gilbert, MSW, Educational Consultant, Writer and Parent

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Just jumping back in again to add my two cents on the idea of emphasizing more APs to potentially offset tuition costs.

First, AP tests disadvantage lower income students whose high schools can't compete with the AP offerings at more elite public schools. And right or wrong, we DO have elite public schools and those barely struggling to just graduate students. We also have mid-tier high schools who provide a small offering of AP's but lack enough trained teachers and resources to again, compete with those more rigorous and fierce schools chock full of APs. Students at these schools are also disadvantaged.

Second, to get "credit" for an AP, a student must take an end-of-year killer exam (by the way, one of the most profitable not-for-profits - the College Board, aka the SAT administration - charges for and administers those exams, so its not free). Further, to even be considered for college credit, students have to score at least a 4 on the exam - the equivalent of a B. That's a tall order. On top of that, many colleges reserve the right to accept only those AP classes they choose to. There are thousands of students who go off to college every year with three or more AP's under their belt, with a final exam score of 4 or 5, only to learn their college will accept a just a few of those classes. This is because the college wants their students to "repeat" the class on their campus - their own physics class rather than the College Board's - so they can be assured of the quality and content.

Unfortunately, APs have become less about college credit, and authentically advancing college education - and more about keeping up with the overwhelmingly competitive race to get into college. AP's are what students now have to take to "show" a college they can handle rigorous academics. But taking all these AP's - amping schoolwork up to a college level - has added tremendously to the high-pressure cooker environment of high school. We have too many stressed-out kids, with too little sleep, on what many are now calling a Race to Nowhere. Respectfully, AP's are not the solution - but part of another problem that the college's, and their admissions offices shave set in motion.

As I said in my prior answer, the marketplace needs to speak. It's almost heresy for me to suggest this, but students now have viable options beyond a traditional 4 year college to advance their education and find a meaningful career. The data suggests this is where we're headed. However, my hope is that traditional colleges become more nimble and entrepreneurial in the next five to ten years. And figure out how to make their schools a worthwhile investment without bankrupting the parents of the kids who go there..

Elizabeth Mack, Writing tutor, English Instructor at community college and university.

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There is no denying the fact that college is expensive. The rise in tuition to attend college has outpaced the rate of inflation by almost six percent, leading students and their families to question if a four year degree is still worth it. However, college graduates can expect to make considerably more, on average, than those with just a high school diploma, but with a college degree often comes a mountain of debt. What can we do to make college more affordable?

To answer that question, let’s consider the theories behind the rising cost of college. Universities compete for the best and brightest students, and these students are drawn to amenities. Colleges are investing in state-of-the-art student centers with rock climbing walls, bowling alleys, coffee bars, high-definition televisions, pool and ping-pong tables, and dining facilities with as much variety as any urban center. All of these amenities, however, come with a high price tag.

Higher education payrolls have risen rapidly, though actual instructor salaries have remained stagnant. The focus recently has been on the bloat of administrative positions with their inflated salaries. While it’s imperative that universities attract the best academics and researchers in their field, which in turn attracts students, the skyrocketing cost – and number of – administrative positions is a concern. Many universities across the country have begun to cut the bloat.

Finally, public universities have relied on state funding, and after the 2007 recession, tax rolls shrunk. State budgets were slashed across the country and the shortfall made up by increased tuition. However, some believe government funding cuts have little to do with skyrocketing tuition, citing the inflation adjusted Pell Grant expansion as well as the sharp rise in those attending college. There are just more students attending college, so the piece of pie is smaller.

Assuming the cost of tuition won’t be going down any time soon, the burden is on students to make college affordable. Community college is a viable alternative to a four-year university. Tuition is not only considerably less, but many offer attractive transfer programs to local universities. When taking into account two-year colleges that offer free parking and no student fees, the savings can be tremendous. Community college can also buy a student time who isn’t quite sure what field of study to undertake. Students lose time and money changing degree programs, and community college can be a time to explore different subjects at a much cheaper price. Considering the cost of living in dorms vs. staying at home, for some, it’s a no brainer.

Dr. Aaron Smith, Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, Currently Program Director at Aviation Academy, Co-Author of Awakening Your STEM School

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From a high school perspective, school districts should offer more Advanced Placement (AP), dual credit and articulation agreements with colleges and universities. In my two decades as an educators, I strongly believe the students have gotten smarter and need to be challenged.

Channeling them in this direction will not only save them money from the rising cost of tuition, but also gear them to focus on their degrees. From this savings, I hope that they would begin their Master's degree.

Parents with students in high school should check on the options that their child's school currently offers. It is a win-win situation from their gpa rising to banking college credits before they graduate.

Brittney Miller, College graduate, current graduate student

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This is an interesting topic because the amenities that students demand come at a cost that they seem to be willing to pay. Certainly there are more factors to consider for rising tuition costs between public and private institutions, liberal arts colleges and research universities, and there are different funding programs available to different colleges. Some universities certainly have a business model to maximize profit with emphasis on student tuition dollars as Erin mentions, but there are some colleges that provide a quality education and maintain a modest endowment. An unfortunate aspect of the rising cost of college is that little will change if students continue demanding amenities because colleges will continue providing the product that students are willing to pay for.

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