High cost of college: the truth behind the myths
Eight myths (and some truths) about why college costs so much, and why you can’t work your way through school anymore.
Seattle Times higher education reporter
Whenever we write about how much it costs to go to college, we hear from a lot of readers.
Some are sympathetic toward students (and their tuition-paying parents), and think tuition costs are out of control.
But others are dismissive of the whole issue. Why don’t students just go to community college, they wonder. Why should the state pay anything toward higher education? Why are college presidents so richly rewarded, and can’t these schools do a better job of managing their money?
Last week, the U.S. Senate blocked a bill that would have allowed some students to refinance their college loans. Critics said it would cost taxpayers too much. And some questioned why students were taking out such big loans in the first place.
Here’s a look at eight frequently expressed sentiments and questions about college — why it costs so much, and what’s behind escalating levels of student debt.
Q: I worked my way through college. Why can’t today’s students do the same?
Because public college costs have gone up so much, largely as a result of steep budget cuts by the state Legislature during the recession, on top of cuts made in the early 2000s. As recently as 10 years ago, an undergraduate resident at the University of Washington paid about $5,000 in tuition annually — the state picked up more than half the cost. Even with living expenses factored in, it would have been possible for a student working full time during the summer and part time during the school year to at least pay a good chunk of the cost through earnings.
College was an even better deal for students who graduated in the 1980s and 1990s, when the state paid 70 to 80 percent of the cost. (Of course, the minimum wage was lower, too.) If the state still picked up 80 percent of the tab, a year of undergraduate tuition at the UW would be less than $5,000.
Today, it’s not really possible to pay-as-you-go — even at the least expensive four-year public school in the state, Eastern Washington University. When living expenses are factored in, EWU costs about $18,000 a year, including nearly $8,000 in tuition and fees. That’s thousands more than what most students working full time in the summer and part time during the school year can earn.
Q: Why are poor students getting a free ride in college, while others have to pay?
Washington’s public colleges and universities have promised to help low-income students with financial aid because they are least likely to go to college, and because education is seen as an economic leveler that can break a family’s cycle of poverty.
In fact, even as the state has cut higher-education funding, it has increased student financial aid; still, about 30,000 students who qualify receive no aid because there aren’t enough dollars to go around.
Colleges help, too. About a third of undergraduate, in-state students at the UW go to school tuition-free, thanks to the Husky Promise, a program that picks up the tab on any tuition costs not covered by the federal Pell Grant, State Need Grant and other financial aid.
Tuition is less than half the cost of going to college; when living expenses are factored in, the yearly price at the UW is about $27,000, and most financial aid doesn’t help with that. Low-income students take out loans, too; in 2012-13, low-income students graduated from Washington’s public four-year colleges with an average debt of about $7,600.
Universities have paid for programs like Husky Promise and Washington State University’s Cougar Commitment through tuition dollars that come from students who pay full price. That has created a kind of feedback loop that exacerbates the already high cost for students who don’t qualify for aid.
In a report released last week, a UW student group asked the university to reconsider the way financial aid is distributed. One concern: Student-aid formulas assume that low-income students can’t contribute much through job earnings. If the system was redesigned, and if the state fully funded its student-aid program, more money might be available to middle-income students, lessening the need for big loans.
Q. Suck it up, and stop whining — you elite college kids don’t need any of my hard-earned money to fund your education.
That’s kind of what the state Legislature has already decided, through its cutbacks in higher education. (Last year, it did restore some funding and froze tuition for two years.)
Washington now spends about $210 per capita on higher education, including community-college support and financial-aid help. When adjusted for inflation, it is spending 37 percent less per capita on higher education than it did in 1991.
About 42 percent of that money today goes to community colleges; the rest is distributed among the four-year universities, with the UW receiving the largest percentage of that, or 17 percent.
In 1991, every man, woman and child in Washington paid an inflation-adjusted $96 a year to fund undergraduate education at the UW, including its campuses in Bothell and Tacoma.
Today, that figure is $36.
Q. Aren’t college costs going up because of bloated administrative costs and highly paid college presidents?
A recent report by the Delta Cost Project did find that at universities across the nation, the compensation costs for employees are rising steadily, and there’s a widespread increase in the number of administrative jobs.
But most of the increase was at private colleges, for jobs that provide noninstructional student services — like counseling, admissions, financial and athletics. And a big chunk of the compensation increase was due to rising health-care costs and retirement contributions.
Overall, public research universities and community colleges average 16 fewer employees per 1,000 full-time students than they did in 2000. The report did not look at specific universities.
University of Washington President Michael Young makes $570,000 a year, and he’ll be eligible for a deferred compensation payment of nearly $1 million in a few more years. He’s the 19th-highest-paid public college president in the country.
It’s worth knowing, though, that he is the CEO of the third-largest nonmilitary employer in Washington — an institution with a $6 billion budget, four hospitals, $1.25 billion in research funding and 30,000 employees. He makes more than Gov. Jay Inslee ($166,000), but less than UW head football coach Chris Petersen ($3.2 million — a salary paid for primarily by football ticket sales).
Hundreds of UW employees make more than $250,000 a year. Why? The UW says the salaries of 80 percent of its 100 highest-paid employees are paid through federal research grants or athletic funds. About 70 percent work in health sciences, and some of the highest-paid include neurosurgeons and cardiologists who teach medicine, see patients at UW Medical Center and also receive federal research money.
Q. Why don’t more students start by enrolling in a community college?
Washington actually has one of the highest participation rates in the community-college system in the country. In 2012, 47 percent of high-school graduates who enrolled in college chose a two-year college. Classes are often much smaller than at a public four-year university. With yearly tuition of about $4,000, and agreements that make it easier to transfer credits to an in-state university, it’s a very good way to cut costs.
Keep in mind that community colleges also have lower completion rates than four-year schools; it’s a different atmosphere, and may not offer the same level of rigor, or the same amount of academic assistance for failing students. And some studies have suggested that low-income students do better when they start their academic careers at more demanding colleges and universities — schools that also offer more in financial aid.
Q. Don’t a lot of college students major in worthless liberal-arts fields?
Actually, the most popular degree fields at the UW are psychology, biology, communication, biochemistry, economics, political science and accounting. Also on the list: business and engineering degrees, mathematics and computer science.
University career experts say students get the most out of college if they choose a major they’re most interested in, and then learn how to translate their college work into marketable skills.
They also point out that the vast majority of people in the workforce with four-year degrees majored in the liberal arts. And, they note that the workforce needs people who are experts in a wide variety of subjects.
Q. Universities should stop wasting money on fancy new buildings, climbing walls, health clubs and luxurious dorms.
Many critics of higher education have railed against the cost of new buildings.
The UW has recently started replacing its aging residence halls with gleaming new buildings that feature private bathrooms in each room, even a restaurant and fitness center. The new dorms are in high demand among students.
Rents are about average when compared to residence halls at other universities, but higher than at the UW’s older residence halls. A double room in an older hall costs about $5,500 per academic year, for instance, while a double in a new dorm costs about $8,300 per academic year. Over four years, that’s a cost difference of more than $11,000.
The lion’s share of capital- project money that the UW has received in recent years went to renovations, roof replacements and minor capital repairs, and to one new building — the Legislature budgeted about $20 million in 2012 for the construction of a new building at the UW-Bothell campus.
In recent years, the university has funded construction through private donations (Paccar Hall, Husky Stadium), or by selling bonds and then paying them off through federal research grant money (most of the buildings in South Lake Union). The UW gets more federal research funding than any other public university in the U.S.
Q. College is not worth the money.
Every other week, it seems, another study comes out that shows the sharp wage increase and lowered unemployment rate that comes from getting a college degree. The most recent paper, by MIT economist David Autor, finds that the net cost of attending is now negative half a million dollars; in other words, not going to college will cost you about $500,000.
Closer to home, 70 percent of jobs in Washington state will require some form of postsecondary training by 2020, according to the Georgetown Center on Higher Education and the Workforce.
Of course, not all of those jobs will require a bachelor’s degree — in many cases two years of community college or a higher-education credential will fill the bill.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.