Decades of tuition hikes show higher education can be affordable
Ever since Bernie Sanders and other left-leaning politicians brought back the push for more affordable, if not free, college, critics have dismissed it as unrealistic. However, when you look at how affordable colleges were 40 or even 20 years ago, and how expensive they have become over time, you realize we have been lied to.
The factors behind why colleges like the University of Massachusetts have become so much more expensive are myriad and complex, even though the driving force behind it is that our governments have simply stopped spending so much money on colleges. Under the 40th President Ronald Reagan, this was no accident; Reagan said it was good for colleges to pass the costs on to students because if students had to pay, they would value their education too much to protest.
This is seen in the University of Massachusetts’ own cost increases since the early 1960s. In the 1960-61 school year, the total cost for an in-state student was $266. In 1980-81, tuition, fees, and room and board together cost $1,229 for an in-state student. Adjusted for inflation, this would represent an increase of about 66% over 1961.
Over the next 10 years, between 1981 and 1991, the total cost per semester would have more than quadrupled to $4,947. If tuition had only kept up with inflation, it would have been $1,841.47, which means a semester at UMass has become more than 2.5 times more expensive in just a decade. However, these costs only take into account tuition, not various other expenses such as meal plans and room and board.
Public funding for public universities in Massachusetts fell 30% between 2001 and 2019, and according to a MassBudget report, this was largely the result of tax cuts for the wealthy starting in the 1990s. Coinciding with the last two decades of funding cuts, families in Massachusetts have gone from about 30% of tuition in 2001 to 60% in 2018.
Various personalities in academia and the media have argued that declining public funding for colleges—if that’s even the primary reason—explains only part of the reason why even public universities have become so unaffordable. These causes include overspending on non-teaching staff, or “administrative bloat,” frivolous construction projects (and spending in general), too much student aid, or simply too many Americans going to college. .
The relevance of these factors is true to varying degrees, and even with comprehensive comparisons of these factors, we cannot get the full picture. Though a report from the left-leaning think tank Demos finds that these factors are nowhere as relevant as state funding cuts.
Increased spending required for resources that were not as relevant or costly decades ago, such as IT services, career and student life services, as well as increased funding for athletic programs, are among these factors. The report also finds that rising health care costs played a leading role in driving up employee costs, as over the same period they increased by $2,700 per employee, a 40% increase.
The report notes, however, that the number of “executives and administrators” has decreased relative to the average height of students. Additionally, the average number of staff per 1,000 students decreased from 2000 to 2012, from just over 300 to exactly 300. As for the costs of food services, sports teams, and other student life programs , they are largely self-funded by independent revenue sources. (especially in the case of sports teams) and are not the main cause of unaffordable tuition.
Construction costs can also be ruled out as a factor in why public universities like UMass have become so unaffordable. For starters, a substantial portion of construction projects are funded by private donations or directly by state governments (in the case of public universities). Even if students footed the bill for average college construction projects, the report concludes, it would only result in an 11% increase in tuition.
We can also see how construction costs were exaggerated due to the UMass building boom of the 1960s, as explained in this in-depth article by UMass alumnus Adam Lechowicz. From 1960 to 1975, UMass experienced significant growth with landmark projects such as the Southwest and Orchard Hill residential areas, Franklin Dining Commons, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, Campus Center, Thompson Hall, and several other buildings completed in just 15 years.
Adjusted for inflation, the tuition increase from 1960 to 1975 was only $63, an increase of 13%. Over the past 20 years, and with considerably less construction, tuition and fees have gone from $5,842 to $16,251; adjusted for inflation, it doubled.
All of this is not to say that factors such as frivolous construction projects, excessive bureaucracy, and an overreliance on student loan programs don’t play a role in the ever-increasing unaffordability of UMass and college. other public universities. But they distract from the main problem, which is that states like the Commonwealth are not providing their universities with the financial support they need.
Public universities like UMass were founded on the idea that if a college education is so important to our society, we should make it available to everyone who needs it. With UMass and other public colleges as unaffordable as they are now, they cannot achieve their original goal.
Given how much time has passed since colleges were last affordable, there is no easy fix. And that’s even if we get some much-needed funding increases in Massachusetts and elsewhere. If one thing is certain, there must be a better way than to cripple generations with decades of debt for a degree.
Liam Rue can be reached at [email protected]