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Watts: High Cost of College

May 1 marks a critical date in the college decision process - as the day by which students and their parents have to plunk down their deposits, essentially making the decision about where they are going to go to school.

And one thing on pretty much everyone’s mind is likely to be how expensive college has become.

Several colleges and universities now charge more than $70,000 for just one year. Columbia University tops the list at $74,000. In Vermont, Middlebury leads at $67,000, but Norwich, St. Mikes and UVM (for out of state students) are all above $50,000, including room and board.

College is labor intensive, so a big part of these costs is the salaries of faculty and staff. And UVM Sociologist Beth Mintz explains that at the heart of these costs also lies a re-definition of higher education from a public good to a private good - and a competition for student dollars. Mintz gives three examples.

The first is what’s called tuition discounting. To rank high on the “best colleges” list, colleges need students with high grades and SAT scores. But everyone is after those students, so in order to get them, colleges discount their tuition - even though students with higher grades and scores generally come from higher income families. This drives up costs, and sadly, makes less money available for lower income families.

Next comes what Mintz calls the battle of amenities - from climbing walls to shiny new gyms, student centers and expensive dorms. Colleges need these to compete with each other, and to build them, colleges have to borrow money. Financing that debt is expensive.

Add to that a substantial growth in student services like more counselors, tutors, health services, writing centers and support staff. To manage all this there are more supervisors and administrators.

Mintz says the only thing she’s seen that puts downward pressure on college costs is the free tuition model. If college is free, then the competition becomes how to lower costs to balance budgets.

But  this would require the reframing of higher education as a public good once more - something that benefits all of us instead of only those who can afford it.

Until then, college admissions will remain the arms race competition that it is today, and everyone will be the poorer for it.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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