Why Is College so Expensive?

Barry Lenson

While I was in New York City a few days ago, I overheard this conversation on the Broadway uptown bus. Three people who looked like current college students were talking . . .

“It’s just too goddam expensive.”

“What’s too goddam expensive?”

“College. College is too goddam expensive.”

“You’re not XXXXing me it’s too expensive!”

“Why is it so XXXXing expensive? Why does it cost so much?”

And the conversation went on in pretty much the same vein. Actually, I’ve been hearing a lot of conversations like that lately, and I bet you have too. And it’s no surprise. When a college degree costs as much as a pretty nice house, something has gone seriously out of kilter.

But let’s return to the question that was at the center of the conversation I overheard. Why, exactly, is college so absurdly expensive today? Here are some of the reasons why . . .

  • Colleges deliver education in inefficient, antiquated, and expensive ways. A typical old brick-and-mortar college is home to lecture halls, classroom buildings, dorms, and dining halls. All those buildings need to be heated, maintained, and cleaned. And when you stop to think about it, all you really need is a computer to deliver a college course today. All that other stuff is peripheral.
  • Colleges don’t “sell” courses for their actual cost. Due to all those buildings – not to mention administrators, athletic programs, heating systems, and the rest – the price of courses gets artificially inflated. A lecture or computerized course that really costs only a few hundred dollars to produce gets sold for thousands of dollars. That’s another reason college costs too XXXXing much.
  • The financial structure of colleges contains too many moving parts and variables. Colleges have endowments, investment advisors, alumni donations, capital campaigns, scholarship committees, and on and on it goes. With all that stuff flying around, the cost of a typical course becomes only one among thousands if considerations.  In reality, the cost of education should be at the very center of it all.
  • A college education is all tied up with status. Buying a high-status college education from a top-tier school is not unlike buying a mink coat when all you need is a down-stuffed parka to keep you warm.  Is there ever a reason to attend a high-status or Ivy League institution? In some cases, there is. If you want to do some kind of specialized research under a leading professor who teaches at Harvard, for example, you really might want to go there. And if you want to increase the chances of getting a job by graduating from a top school like Columbia or Penn (and you can pay for it), then going there might make sense too. But for most of us who are involved in the business of grabbing a degree then earning a living, the education we get is really what matters, not the brand name. So why pay exorbitant tuitions?


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