December 22, 2021
Over the past several decades, the cost of higher education has increased dramatically, more than doubling since 1985 at both public and private universities. The search for an explanation is urgent.
While no complex phenomenon has a single cause, one overlooked factor here is the parallel societies we’ve come to expect colleges and universities to create. These institutions now offer a suite of duplicative services that are either more properly the domain of the state or are activities once entrusted to students and faculty themselves. Driven by what Ryan Boyd calls “a growing technocratic-neoliberal emphasis on data, measurement, and surveillance,” college is ever more expensive because we expect ever more of it.
The services I have in mind aren’t the things people most strongly associate with college — classes and the professors who teach them. Indeed, the percentage of courses taught by full-time, tenure-track faculty members has been on the decline for decades, with many classes taught by graduate students, non-tenure track full-timers on short contracts, or part-time faculty working for poverty wages with no benefits or job security. That shift saves schools money, but tuition hasn’t fallen accordingly. The rising cost of higher education still consistently outstrips inflation.
Conservatives blame the explosion of loans, which create a kind of moral hazard known as the Bennett Hypothesis. As former Secretary of Education William Bennett argued, “The more you subsidize something, the more you get of it.” In other words, colleges responded to expansions in federal aid by raising tuition and spending it on new programs, real estate, and services.
That theory certainly has supporters who aren’t lifelong conservative activists like Bennett, but it fails to account for rising costs at state colleges and universities, which are less reliant on loans in the first place. There, liberals blame the retreat of state support for public education, which was once effectively free for in-state students. In some states, like Pennsylvania and Alabama, funding has fallen by more than 30 percent just since 2008. The Bennett Hypothesis also doesn’t really explain why so many schools are mired in seemingly endless financial crises despite ostensibly grifting off the federal government’s limitless largesse.