Why is Higher Education so Expensive?

Tuition is Too Damn High

“We have a responsibility to ensure that every individual has the opportunity to receive a high-quality education, from prekindergarten to elementary and secondary, to special education, to technical and higher education and beyond.” ~Jim Jeffords

Higher Education has become quite the flash point in recent years. Students of all stripes (myself included) have been subject to constant increases in the cost of their college education. Of course, they could always decide to skip college and just enter the workforce, thus saving tens of thousands of dollars. Oh wait, never mind, they really can’t. As the cost of higher education has continued to rise, it has only become more of a necessity. Don’t believe me?  Ask all those insurance agents if a bachelor’s degree was really necessary to do the work they do.  Or the companies who need employees trained in highly specialized fields like computer science if they’ll hire someone straight out of high school. Though the more important question is how did we get here?

Problem 1: State Higher Education funding has not matched the need nor the demand of this generation. While funding for education has generally risen for higher ed over the past decade, it has not come close to meeting demand. In fact, most public state institutions have actually seen funding decrease dramatically in relation to the amount the student pays in tuition. In Minnesota, this has accounted for a state college and university system that once was two-thirds state funding, one-third tuition to shift to the opposite ratio. As we continue to see more students pursuing a higher-education, the lack of legislative will to match that increase with a proportionate amount of funding is placing the financial burden solely on the back of the students.

Problem 2: Educating a student simply costs more. One thing I never understood about Star Wars, was how they afforded to build those technological marvels like the Death Star and lightsaber. It couldn’t have been cheap.  Similarly, as the world makes rapid technological advances, the education required to utilize that technology in the work force increases as well. In order to stay on the cutting edge, college and universities must invest thousands of dollars into the latest teaching tools. Whether this is a state-of-the-art science lab or an effective Learning Management System the cost of education increases with every new innovation. Unfortunately, that cost gets passed on directly to the student in the form of increased fees and tuition.

Problem 3: Companies that use to train their employees, now rely on the higher education institutions to do it for them. There was a time when you could get an entry-level job doing something as simple as working in a mail room. From there you could work your way up with the help of in-house training. In many ways, those days are behind us. Instead, employers expect you to attend college for a very specific field, get the requisite experience through what is many times an unpaid internship, and then fill a very specific need. This  has forced anyone who would like a well-paying, stable job to first invest a great deal of resources in a college education. This of course leads to further financial stress on the colleges and universities around the country. Well at least until we can upload information directly into our brains ala The Matrix.

Getting a higher education degree is unlikely going to get cheaper in the near future thanks to the combination of the increasing cost to educate students, a lack of state funding, and the simple reality corporations expect more out of higher education. However, there are things we as a society can do to reverse the trend before the costs begin to affect our ability to maintain a competitive workforce. First, we can begin  to prioritize higher-education funding as a priority when we head to the ballot box by supporting politicians who are serious about addressing the issue. Secondly, we can encourage the use of cheaper technological solutions to old problems (e.g. open source textbooks) to reduce the cost of educating our college students. Lastly, while its unlikely businesses will return to an era where they trained their employees from the bottom to the top, we can encourage partnerships between the private sector and the colleges and universities in order to find creative solutions to drive down the cost of higher education. Or we can always just assign everyone a career chip and cut out the middle man.