Monday, June 20, 2011

Tuition Inflation

As you all know by now, I am an attorney, and like most* attorneys, I went to law school.  Specifically, I went to the University of San Diego School of Law, a fine institution of higher learning if there ever was one.  And, not to date myself too much, but I graduated eight years ago.

I mention this because in the intervening years, tuition at USD has almost doubled.  When I went to USD, I started out paying $22,000 per year, and ended by paying $25,000 per year.  Now, according to the USD website, tuition is $42,500 per year.  That means that a law student going to law school the way I did, strictly on loans, work study, etc., will end up with a minimum of $127,500 in debt.  Based on this student loan calculator, each law student will pay $1600 per month in debt payments.  Now, if they consolidate, and go with the same 25 year plan that I have, they'll probably halve that amount, and end up paying $800 a month. . .maybe.

Now realistically, in the San Diego legal market, an attorney will start out at between $40,000 and $50,000 per year.  Some, the best and the brightest, might get the big firm job, which pays in excess of $100,000, but they're few and far between.  But this post isn't really about law student income, its about this:

With median incomes staying flat, what's driving this absolutely outrageous increase in tuition? From what I have heard from my grad school friends, becoming a professor is getting harder and harder because of intense competition.  So labor costs should not have increased at all. And since students pay for their own books, their own information technology, and pay for their own room and boarding (its a cost separate and apart from tuition), most other aspects of university costs remain the same.

The one exception to this is construction of non-housing university facilities, and the IT that universities use.  Now, I can see that in some instances, this cost would be high enough to necessitate higher tuition costs.  But I've been to USD, and while there are some IT improvements, such as flat screen televisions, there isn't enough of these improvements to necessitate the doubling of tuition.  I just don't see it.

No, tuition increases are not driven by the supply side; they are driven by the demand side.  In essence, colleges and universities are charging outrageous tuitions not because they have to, but because they know students will pay for it no matter what.  After all, a college and/or university degree is one of the key pathways to the middle class in this country.  Indeed, with the exception of kids in trade schools, the only way for a kid who is traditionally educated in this country to succeed is to go to college.  Otherwise, the kid will be sentenced to a lifetime of menial service jobs.  Education is a necessity.

Now, normally, competition is enough to keep prices down.  Food, for instance, is a necessity of life, but is relatively cheap.  If one place is too expensive, you and I can go to the next place down the street.  And there will always be a place down the street that provides food inexpensively.  But here's the thing - a college education isn't just about the degree, its about the brand, the traditions,  the whole shebang.  Our kids don't want to just go to college, they want to go to the right college.  And that's not a huge surprise, because their future employers will select candidates based on where they went to school.  A lawyer with a degree from Harvard will always be more attractive to an employer than someone who went to USD.  Colleges know that, and compete with one another for prestige.

Therein lies the rub - because colleges and universities compete for prestige, they drive their costs higher and higher.  More than that, they charge more so that they won't be known as the "cheap" college.  Even public universities, facing declining investment by the state governments, are falling into this trap.  Thus, into the fray, come the for-profit universities and colleges, providing education at an affordable price.  The only thing that concerns me is that too many of these schools strike me as absolute scams.

So, what can we possibly do about higher education?  Right now, the market is unbalanced, puts each class of students deeper and deeper into debt.  Now, as a society, we need skilled people - doctors, lawyers, engineers, and the like - to continue to function, so we need these kids to be educated.  To be honest with you, I don't know the whole answer.  I think we certainly should reinvest in higher education, and the state that provides the best education at the lowest tuition will have a tremendous advantage going forward.  But how else can we correct the market?  Increased regulation of the for-profits so that they're not scams?  Possibly.

The one thing that does make sense, market wise, is to lower the demand for higher education by putting more kids into trade schools.  These kids will be able to circumvent the whole college process completely, make good money, and possibly boost the industrial sector of the economy (by eliminating the need for employers to train labor, lowering their employment costs).  Indeed, tuition costs in higher education have grown at increasing rates ever since the industrial sector has declined.

Either way, higher education needs substantial reform, as the status quo is not sustainable.  While there is no good solution, doing nothing is the worst solution of all.

*I just found this out - in California, attorneys do not need to go to law school if they apprentice with a lawyer or a judge for four years.  All that's actually required is two years of college.  Now, they have to take the "Baby Bar," and the Bar Exam, but no law school is actually required. 

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