6 Questions About College: So Where Does the Money Spent on Tuition and Fees Really Go?

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Also: How come some colleges are so unbelievably selective when deciding which high schoolers are accepted nowadays?
Just how much has the cost of college increased? The Economist shows that over the past four decades, median household income has risen by a factor of 6.5, at the same time that tuition at a state university has increased 15 times for in-state students and 24 times for out-of-staters. Private college costs have risen by a factor of 13 over the same time period.

Why, exactly, has going to college gotten so expensive? Riffing off the Economist story, NPR gives three explanations for why college costs 10 times what it did 30 years ago, including the concept that a college degree is worth more as an investment to students/workers than it used to be:

In 2008, young men with a college degree made 42 percent more than those with only high school degrees, up from 16 percent in 1980. For women, the gap was 44 percent in 2008, up from 26 percent in 1980.

So where does all the money paid by students really go? The LA Times says that overall, the dramatic rise in college costs over the past few decades hasn’t benefited students by giving them better educations or smaller class sizes. Instead, more often than not, students have been expected to pay more and more to cover expenses associated with athletic teams, ever-growing college administrations, and tenured professors.

So how are families paying for college nowadays? Increasingly, according to U.S. News & World Report, parents are taking money out of their retirement accounts to pay for their kids’ educations. What happens when these parents want to retire? That’s a question for a different discussion.

Why are colleges so unbelievably selective lately? A group of experts discusses just this topic at the NY Times. One simple, quite sensible explanation for why some colleges get to be super selective is that the population of high school students who want a respected four-year degree has risen much faster than the student population at many universities:

Anyway you do the math, more students are applying to college: more applications lead to great selectivity.
Are too many students going to college? The SF Chronicle hosted a debate on this topic last fall, and experts weighed in with interesting perspectives, such as this one from Bryan Caplan, associate professor of economics at George Mason University:

There are two ways to read this question. One is: “Who gets a good financial and/or personal return from college?” My answer: people in the top 25 percent of academic ability who also have the work ethic to actually finish college. The other way to read this is: “For whom is college attendance socially beneficial?” My answer: no more than 5 percent of high-school graduates, because college is mostly what economists call a “signaling game.” Most college courses teach few useful job skills; their main function is to signal to employers that students are smart, hard-working, and conformist. The upshot: Going to college is a lot like standing up at a concert to see better. Selfishly speaking, it works, but from a social point of view, we shouldn’t encourage it.

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