What Does College Cost America?

David Acevedo

CounterCurrent: Week of 3/7

$1.7 trillion dollars.

That’s the amount of debt American college graduates now carry. Recent stimulus packages may have desensitized our ears to the real meaning of that number, so in case you need a reminder: it’s a lot of money, and it’s more than triple what it was 15 years ago. For a sense of scale, it’s greater than the GDP of nearly two hundred individual countries and a little over 8% of America’s 2020 GDP.

How did we get here? Why is college so expensive? Why are students and their families willing to take on inordinate amounts of debt in order to earn a degree? What can be done to lower costs and help college-goers make smarter decisions?

In the National Association of Scholars’ new report, Priced Out: What College Costs America, Research Associate Neetu Arnold answers these questions and many more, presenting 18 months of in-depth research on the student debt crisis and higher ed’s ever-expanding administrative bloat. Arnold combines rigorous quantitative analysis of institutional revenue sources and expenditures with a qualitative investigation of students’ and families’ motives when choosing where to go to college (or where not to go) and how much to spend. The result is an exhaustive piece of research that covers many different sides of the issue, including those ignored by most other analyses of the student debt crisis.

Priced Out attributes rising college tuition to three main factors: 1) government subsidies, 2) institutional marketing campaigns, and 3) the rise of the idea that a college degree is necessary for long-term success, “the gateway to the middle class,” as many claim. Arnold critiques the assumptions and effects of these three factors, showing how each feeds into one another and causes college tuition to rise at an unsustainable rate every year—always at the expense of students and faculty while administrators laugh all the way to the bank. She writes:

University administrators are confident in their post-pandemic future. Their wealthy corporate donors and NGO collaborators are confident in theirs as well. But what about professors, the stewards of knowledge that universities are supposed to provide? And what about students and families, the much-fleeced customers of these institutions? For decades they have been shorn ever deeper by administrative bloat and exorbitant tuition — and they will be still, if the status quo continues. ...

We know what sort of thoroughgoing reforms will restore higher education to its proper dimensions — a university composed very largely of faculty and students and scarcely at all of administrators, devoted to education rather than indoctrination, and which does not impose decades of debt on its graduates.

In her report, Arnold offers 14 recommendations across 5 categories to curb higher ed’s administrative bloat, to empower students to make smarter decisions, and to increase financial transparency within our colleges and universities. As she writes, “Higher education can be reformed — if we summon up the will.” Will we do so?

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Karsten Winegeart, Public Domain

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