The Rising Cost of College

Some writers go to college to be better writers and walk across the stage at the end of their scholastic adventure with a degree that demonstrates their dedication and learning to the craft of writing. Others my go to college for something completely unrelated to writing only to find themselves drawn to a passion of writing later. Some may not appreciate the college lifestyle or may have other factors that dissuade them from attending. And regardless of whether or not an author went to college and what they may have studied while there does not dictate how successful of an author they might be.

But moving forward, we may see fewer and fewer people attending college as the trend of college costs continue to rise at a faster pace than salaries. A recent study posted online showed that the average college tuition increased by 4% from 2021 to 2022 making the average annual college bill come out to "just under $40,000" and that the ivy league colleges such as Harvard now have an expected annual cost of approximately "$95,438."

That means to attend an ivy league college to obtain a 4-year degree carries with it a cost of roughly $400,000. How many jobs with a 4-year degree do you know that can afford to take on that level of debt?

To better illustrate the dramatic increase in college costs versus salary, the same report indicated that in the 40 years between 1980 to 2020 that the average price of a college education increased by 169% while earnings for workers of college age during that same period only increased by 19%. In other words, college prices rose 8x faster/higher than the salaries of those trying to attend them.

The reason for this exponential increase in cost is largely placed on the shoulders of the human teachers college require to lead the classrooms. And while I certainly understand the need to pay for quality teachers, it has not been my experience that colleges actively seek out quality rather than profitable when it comes to who they hire.

Colleges are largely a for-profit institution. They make money off student class enrollment, book sales, dorm fees, parking passes, meal plans, and a number of other ways that they can find to squeeze students (and their benefactors in some cases) for every penny they can. But this also means that when it comes to hiring staff that the colleges will tend to prefer staff that are more affordable, that increases the college's bottom line, i.e. profits.

Let me paint a couple of small pictures to help illustrate these examples.

One of our sons graduated high school and wanted to pursue a college degree in his chosen field of music. He managed to get a couple of different scholarships from different school for his musical abilities. The college he chose offered him enough money each semester to pay for his classes and books but not his room and board. Wanting to encourage his dream, his mother and I offered to pay for his room and board. He lived in the dorms on campus. He did not have a car. Our bill was still nearly $10,000 a year. And this was a junior college, not a big college like UT or A&M and certainly not an ivy league college. We paid for his dorm, his meal plan, his groceries, and a few non-essential extras to help supplement or enhance his learning opportunities.

That's $10,000 a year for a junior college with a scholarship paying for required classes and books.

Now the flip side of that, I did attempt to go to college on a few occasions and on each occasion I found college and I were not a good fit. While my teachers for the basics (math, English, history, etc.) all seemed very capable and knowledgeable, some of the teachers I ran across in the IT department were anything but. At 18 years old, fresh out of high school and in my first semester of college, I registered for a programming class since it was my desire to be a computer programmer. After the first few days of class, the teacher, a tenured professor who had been with the college for a number of years, started asking me to teach certain lessons. A similar experience was had a few years later when I went back after being put off by being asked to teach a class that I was paying to attend when another teacher in the IT department asked me to stick around after one of my 101 classes. The reason for the request was because he had to teach the advanced class on that same language later that afternoon and it was covering material that he wasn't familiar with. He wanted me to give him a crash course in the subject matter so that he could try to manage his way through teaching a class that he was not skilled enough to do.

And if that isn't enough, while later attending as a part-time student to learn new skills, a classmate had asked if I could come to the college's computer lab that afternoon to help her with an assignment that she was having issues with in a programming class that I wasn't registered in but knew from my self study efforts. I arrived, she explained the assignment to me (creating a simple for loop), and then showed me her code. The code was a complete mess. It was non-functional with incorrect syntax for the language in use. In fact, it wasn't even a for loop but was written like a while loop (yes, those are two different types of loops in programming). When I asked why she attempted to do a while loop even though the assignment was to do a for loop she said that the code I was looking at was the code the professor teaching the class wrote. This was his example of a working for loop that he typed into her IDE but also couldn't figure out how to make it work. One might think that the teacher's failure was meant to provide the student an opportunity to solve the issue on their own as part of a learning exercise but why would a teacher give a student in the early days of a 101 class that problem with so many issues in it? A while loop and a for loop had very distinct differences in how they operate. The code was not properly formatted for the language intended. Variable declarations were wrong. From start to finish this was nowhere near a working example of the assigned task. I removed every line of code the teacher wrote and guided my classmate through the exercise while explaining the logic behind everything in a manner in which she could understand and learn from. It took us about half an hour to complete the exercise but by the end of it she had learned what to do, why to do it, how to do it, and where you might want to do it when programming in that language. I provided her with an education that the class's teacher either couldn't or wouldn't but was still paid for.

To say that I am somewhat jaded when it comes to the value of college would be a fair statement. My college experiences weren't great. From online classes that required regular in-person visits during work hours only to teachers that apparently didn't know the material they were being paid to teach, I eventually gave up on my hopes for a degree because I began to feel that if I ever managed to complete all of the courses with the crazy requirements be given that the degree would have little real-world value as the quality of the education I would have received would have been subpar.

I have seen people graduate with a degree in IT who did not know what a zip file was or how to open it. I have had teachers ask me to tutor them so they could teach their classes. I have been asked by my own teachers to teach my own classes because I knew the material better than they did. How are we justifying such substantial increases in college tuition as being to pay for educated and experienced teachers? Honestly, outside of the basic core classes, teachers in areas like IT or other "sciences" where the technology and processes are always evolving, those classes need either new teachers to replace the old ones on a regular basis. Now, I don't know how it works for every college but the colleges I attempted to attend often had professors teaching those classes for years and years regardless of the changes to the field. That's one of the reasons my teachers were constantly leaning on me to teach them because they had been out of the field and in the classroom so long that the languages they knew and used professionally back in the day were no longer in use. Their skill sets had been replaced by newer languages, newer technology, and newer concepts that were foreign to them. How could they possibly teach me material that they themselves did not know or understand? How could I justify spending that much money every semester to attend classes that held no educational value to me (or anyone else in the class) because what was being taught wasn't sufficient for the expectations for the real-world.

I do understand economics. I do understand inflation. I know that all things have increased in price over the last few decades. It isn't just college prices that increased but the the price of all things. As prices increase, employees demand more money from employers to maintain a certain quality of life. Employers offset that increase in expenses in the form of salaries by increases prices on products and services sold. But as salaries increase for entry level jobs they must then also increase for the tiers that follow because no manager wants to be earning less per hour than their subordinates. As teachers demand more money from colleges to pay for their expenses, college are forced to also increase the pay for other employees and administrators which ultimately demand and increase in prices paid by the students.

There isn't necessarily a question of why colleges have increased the costs to students but there is a question of at what point does the price hike outweigh the value of the education received. If colleges are spending massive sums of money to retain teachers in fields that see constant change but the teacher's aren't changing with the field then does that teacher represent a valued investment for the college and for the students they will be responsible for teaching? I mean, yeah, okay, great, you keep prices down by leveraging teachers that are out-of-date with today's technology or haven't had any real-world experience in 20 years but that's not good either. Instead, you have students that are still taking on thousands of dollars with of debt only to graduate with a degree that is pointless because they won't be able to find suitable employment in their field of "expertise" due to the low quality of education provided.

At this point it is either take on a massive debt to get a quality education that will typically cost you more than you will earn over the next several years combined or you take on less debt to get a poor education that will force you to find employment in another field because you didn't learn anything in your chosen field to find gainful employment but still have thousands of dollars of debt that will take several years to pay off. Either way, college is looking less attractive to more Americans every year according to the same study and while some may yearn for free college educations, ask yourself how will that improve the education quality?

If college educations are free, who is paying for the teachers in those classrooms? If college educations are free, how much do you think those teachers will get paid versus what they earn today? If college educations are free, how many of those tenured professors do you think will take a significant pay cut to keep teaching versus retiring or taking their knowledge somewhere else where they can find better compensation? If college educations are free, how many of these for-profit colleges will close their doors and thus put more burden on the other colleges when the influx of X number of additional students try to enroll there?

If we've learned anything from government sponsored prisons, the government will want to operate at a lower cost. The government will operate with the minimum number of facilities. The government will opt to turn away occupants when those facilities are full. I have no reason to think that a free college system will be anything different at this time. The government will want to pay teachers to teach but all teachers will make relatively the same salary. No more of this elitist level teachers making 7 figure salaries because their name recognition earns the college a ton of money in enrollments, grants, and/or donations while other teachers scrape by on $35,000/year. The government will cap the number of students allowed to obtain free education every year because the US government can't afford to pay for every American's college education, especially at today's tuition rates.

This means that we are stuck paying for our own college educations but this begs the question of how much longer can Americans afford to pay for college before it reverts back to being an institution largely reserved for the elite few who can afford to pay the staggering costs that will soon be associated with it at the current rate of increase..

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