Thursday, May 23, 2013

Please Pay At The Door

I recently saw this article about ways to keep the cost of college down. Articles like this seem to coincide with a recent trend of complaining about how much college costs and how society and the government have screwed everything up by expecting the younger generation to meet the same standards as the previous one when they paid a fraction of the cost for much greater benefit.

It seems, however, that everyone on each side is missing the point.

First off, college, in general, is still a great deal. Whether it has a fantastically better rate of return than the college days of decades ago is still more or less up for debate (short answer: depends). So unless your college could be hooked up to a trailer and moved a county over, as long as you've graduated it's still generally a good idea.

Secondly, the dirty secret as to why college costs so much more than they did in the boomer years is that we now expect colleges and universities to do a lot more than they used to. Colleges used to be places to get an education, but that mission statement has spiraled out of control. College are now spiritual centers, social equalizers, therapists, incubators of expensive "life changing moments," and producers of incredible amounts of insurance liability. They are also forced by law to fund sports equally for both genders, forced by law to basically accommodate everyone regardless of cost, and forced by law to provide a laundry list of services lest they lose access to the federal loan system. Practically none of these things existed in the 60's and 70's, and even if they did it wasn't universal nor was it as expensive.

In addition, now that colleges make an active effort to enroll poorer students, the services they provide must go up as well. In previous generations, most college students were well-off enough to cover a lot of the costs of being a college kid; nowadays, those costs are covered by tuition. And everyone gets to pay in.

So college has gotten much, much more expensive, but that's because we, as a society, have forced them to do a lot more for the students. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course, but we can't ignore the fact that these things aren't free.

[As an aside, there's also evidence that the rising cost of a college education is less about actual rising costs and more about some administrative shuffling; for example, a lot more low-income students get scholarships now, so colleges can safely raise the cost of tuition without causing undue hardship to poor students. I'm not sure how widespread this is or how much of an impact it has in the overall scheme of things, but it sounds reasonably plausible. Actually, as another aside, simply typing "cost of college" into The Atlantic's search engine creates dozens of articles about how colleges are simultaneously making the cost of college easier for students and also harder for students. Basically, the short answer is no one has any idea.]

Still, to get back to the original article, I'm not sure how much of it will really make a difference. While I am always a proponent of "more information is good information," for some reason the charge that a "lack of information" is an ongoing crisis rings empty to me. It isn't that hard to get information from colleges. In fact, if you can't be bothered to get this information on your own initiative (as opposed to forcing the government to actively provide it for you, which is the current goal) maybe college really isn't for you.

Some other methods to lower costs involve alternatives to college, such as community colleges, "work" colleges, trade schools, etc. The sad fact is that, despite what politicians and your parents say, not everyone should get a liberal arts education. And that is fine--colleges and (especially) universities have always had a rather specific end goal, and that doesn't always coincide with universal higher education. Not everyone wants, or needs, a liberal arts education, and when the only alternatives are either four-year liberal arts degrees or nothing, you're excluding people who still want to learn but don't want to be discouraged from what could be a challenging educational path. Teaching aspiring electricians about European literature may make for a better society and is beneficial to everyone, but let's not pretend that when he do it to everyone overall costs are going to rise dramatically. Focusing on alternate educational institutions that don't focus on that is an ideal solution.

There's also a lot of distortion in the pricing, due to an unholy mixture of subsidized financing, grants, government-mandated costs, and brimstone. Some of this actively encourages the costs to rise, especially when there are no consequences to costs that are just going to be covered by the government.

In the end, the old economic adage is free: there's no such thing as a free lunch. Previous generations didn't pay as much for college because most colleges back then focused primarily on education and didn't operate as functional mini-societies. In addition, not as many people went to college, so there wasn't a sticky formula of cost-baiting that, while encouraging poorer students, also put into place an infrastructure of price distortion. Not, as is commonly assumed, some sort of grand conspiracy to keep young adults today from buying clove cigarettes and tickets to Lumineers concerts. 

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