The ‘Is College Worth It?’ Meme is Everywhere

OK, so this stuff is everywhere. Maybe a tipping point, or maybe just the recession has just made people pay more attention to what they got for their student loans, or maybe a simple sweeps month link to graduations.

Past stuff I have written on this down the path here.

The confluence of two factors made me start thinking about this: first, serving on the executive committee of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke several years ago during a period of budget cutting, and looking more closely at the the cost side of our academic enterprise. Second, having an 11th grader and helping (watching?) her think about where she wants to go to college, and listening to college tours through the ears of a parent. In doing this, I found myself saying (silently, I value my relationship with my daughter) Bullshit! quite a lot.

When I wrote that college tuition was a bubble, I was (and am) mostly thinking of the cost side of the college equation. There are many key issues, but I think the bottom line is that there are many things that are being done by research universities that are cross-subsidized in non transparent ways. I am less sure about small, teaching-focused liberal arts schools, meaning I just don’t know much about the cost side of their equation. My bottom line to my friends and colleagues in the academy is that we had better get out front of this and take seriously the notion that there may not always be an unlimited supply of people willing to pay the full freight private University tuition, especially at lower ranked ones with less expansive financial aid than the Ivies, etc.

More on College Tuition as a Bubble

I blogged a couple weeks back about the similarity of college tuition and health care costs (up, up, up). I then linked to story about High Point University, and its highly leveraged play to recruit students.

There were several interesting comments about these stories, and many others are weighing in on related issues lately (Josh Barro, Ezra Klein, I am sure there are more).

My main thought about the escalation of college costs and worrying if it is “a bubble” is as a producer of college, a Professor; I worry that the cost structure of what we produce is too high, and that Universities will be too slow to adapt. I suspect that universities will have to look for non-traditional ways to generate revenue from non traditional students. The move toward providing free on line classes could be understood as a back door way of doing this by saying yes we are expensive, but we are providing benefit to those who cannot pay, get in, or who don’t want to do so, making the myriad subsidies “worth it”.

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The next bubble, college tuition edition

David Brooks makes several good points while asking the basic question of whether the cost of college is worth it. Money quote:

This is an unstable situation. At some point, parents are going to decide that $160,000 is too high a price if all you get is an empty credential and a fancy car-window sticker.

Of course, if you are pricing Duke University for little Johnny, you recognize $160,000 as a bargain (the cost of attendance for Duke is $59,343 for 2012-13; our expansive financial aid policies are contained in the link).

I think the practical definition of a bubble is people are rushing to desperately spend their money on something up until the moment where almost no one is willing (or able) to do so. You don’t really know it was a bubble until it pops, but you can likely get some hints. This chart from mymoneyblog may be a hint of sorts.

Continue reading “The next bubble, college tuition edition”