Over the past 20 years, the price of a college education has increased nearly 200 percent.
These numbers, adjusted for inflation, trail only the cost of hospital services when it comes to changes in the prices of consumer goods and services. During the same period, inflation stands at 55 percent.
What about other items? The price of housing has increased at about the rate of inflation. But consumer goods such as cars, household furnishings, clothing, cellphone service, software, toys, and TVs are all cheaper today than they were in 1997. In some instances, the prices have decreased significantly.
So why have the prices of some items decreased? And why have some, college education in particular, become more expensive? As with most items that have become more expensive, we can largely thank the government.
It’s the law of unintended consequences that we often see with federal legislation. A prime example is the “Great Society” of the 1960s. As we grew the welfare state as a nation, out-of-wedlock birth rates increased from about 5 percent fifty-years-ago to over 40 percent today. In Mississippi, it’s 53 percent. As a result, we have generations of children who grew up without Dad, leading to numerous negative societal effects.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, is another example of unintended consequences. Designed to lower barriers to employment for disabled persons, research shows that the law has actually harmed employment opportunities for those who are disabled. Prior to the law, 60 out of every 100 disabled men were able to find jobs. Thanks to the bad incentives created by the law, the number fell to 50 per 100 disabled men after the ADA went into effect.
In an effort to make college more affordable, government involvement has only made college more expensive. Because of readily available financial aid, there are no market mechanisms to control for costs. While those in the private sector have incentives to constantly innovate and maintain competitive costs, there is no such need in higher education. After all, when tuition goes up at Ole Miss, it also goes up at Mississippi State. The schools see no benefit to lower costs. If a school wants to raise tuition, the money to attend will be there – courtesy of Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, that money isn’t just going toward educational purposes. The ballooning costs of a four-year education are funding new administrators and non-teaching sprawl on campus. Indeed, universities now employ more administrators than faculty members. And as part of an education arms race on non-education services, we constantly see new and improved cafeterias, student unions, recreation centers, climbing walls, and other things today’s students apparently need in today’s university experience.
As prices climb, students, and their families, don’t really notice it. At least, not at the time. Because most students are just taking out loans and money is going directly from the federal government to the office at a university that handles student account payments, the student never feels the pain of writing a large check.
And as the federal money flowed, we watched a dramatic change. The missions of colleges and universities shifted from teaching and preparing students to use critical thinking and particular skills to start a successful career to preparing students for a future in political correctness, being constantly offended, and progressive indoctrination.
We’ve seen campuses shift from a place where rigorous intellectual debate, along with civility and decorum, is the norm to one in which conservative speakers are routinely shouted down and even shut down, simply because some students don’t like their message or feel offended by speech with which they disagree. Sadly, administrators are often complicit in this censoring, if not supportive of the protesting actions.
Most recently, a sociology professor at Ole Miss, James Thomas, made national news when he encouraged protestors to “put your whole fingers in their salads” and to “bring boxes and take their food home.” Because, as Thomas put it, “They (Republicans) don’t deserve your civility.” This came on the heels of liberal activists confronting and harassing Republican Senators while they were dining out.
If we want to make college affordable and return higher education to the respected and noble status it once held, we must end federal subsidies to colleges and universities. For more than a century, the American university system was considered the best in the world for providing a classical liberal undergraduate education. Our federal government has jeopardized that.
For the sake of our future generations, we’ve got to reclaim our public colleges.
This column appeared in the Madison County Journal on September 25, 2018.