The independent news organization of Duke University

Tuition is too damn high

Well, the good news is that, according to the Princeton Review, Duke provides the second best value of any private school in the country.

The bad news is that’s like being the skinniest kid at fat camp.

The national debate over college tuition has shifted dramatically in recent years, and a central truth has emerged: The tuition model employed by private colleges like Duke is outdated, unfair and inefficient. If we aren’t proactive about changing it, lower-priced options will fill the void.

Here’s the short story: Since 1985, average tuition in the United States has risen by nearly 500 percent, or almost 5 times the rate of inflation. This is not because universities have pioneered some magical value-adding service in that time, or because the cost of providing an undergraduate education has exploded (in fact, technology should be driving it down). Instead, there is an increasing disparity between cost and value received in higher education.

A whole bunch of people have written about this, and have come up with a range of reasons for why college tuition keeps going up. The most reasonable explanation I’ve seen is also the simplest: the people who can actually afford higher education are generally not terribly concerned with price increases. By one measure, the elasticity of demand for higher education is a measly -0.1 (for every 1 percent increase in price, the applicant pool decreases by just 0.1 percent). Evidently, the holy status bestowed on a college degree by American employers is having some impact on America’s parents and their willingness to pay for outrageously expensive higher education.

But tuition increases have generally had only a tenuous connection to improvements for the people paying them. Duke has regularly justified these increases by pointing to massive increases in the University’s financial aid program—indeed, the University proudly advertises that need-based financial aid has more that doubled since 2003. Huge expansion projects, too, have been pointed to as the cause of the increases—not least a little talked-about new campus in China.

On the face of it, it’s tough to argue with many of these improvements, which is why tuition increases have received minimal scrutiny. It’s not like the University is spending our hard-earned cash on beer money. But the improvements also have one thing in common—they are almost all redistributive in nature.

Need-based financial aid is wonderful in principle, but when—as at Duke—40 percent of students don’t pay full tuition, the system unfairly penalizes middle class families that can only barely afford tuition fees. This is no small problem: These families often spend their life’s savings to pay for the child’s college tuition, only to find that as a result, they are refused financial aid and their hard-earned money goes to support someone else’s education.

Similarly, massive expansions like the Kunshan campus may boost Duke’s international presence, but it’s hard to draw any tangible connection to the current undergraduates who are helping to pay for it.

Until now, this calculus was more or less meaningless. Schools like Duke and its Ivy League peers dramatically increased spending and relied on their prestige to attract new applicants irrespective of price. The entrance of competitors to drive down prices was largely a non-factor. But numerous signs suggest that this is changing.

For one thing, a popular movement questioning the value provided by big-name universities is attracting some big names. Peter Thiel—co-founder of PayPal—has called higher education a “crazy bubble” and calculated that between 70 to 80 percent of colleges and universities no longer generate a positive return on investment for their students. He’s not alone. In a speech last week, President Obama pointed out that student loan debt now, for the first time, exceeds credit card debt in the United States. “Colleges and universities need to do their part to keep costs down,” he said.

Meanwhile, for-profit universities—which, unlike schools like Duke, are subject to the traditional laws of supply and demand—are jumping in to fill the void. Enrollment at these schools, which generally offer career-based technical classes (read: value) at an average of around $15,000 a year has jumped over 200 percent since 1998. As the visibility and prestige of these schools increases, those parents who historically have been agreeable about tuition hikes at schools like Duke may begin to reconsider whether their baby really needs to go to a school with a campus in China.

So what can we do about this? Well, a good first step would be to start paying attention. Tuition hikes at Duke are all too often justified by the common rejoinder that “everyone else is doing it, too.” Similarly, despite the fact that our parents are often the ones footing the bill, the silence from student leaders on the subject has been deafening. Indeed, rises in tuition haven’t been a major issue in any recent student government campaign; DSG has mostly ignored them.

But unlike O-week section party bans or Young Trustee info sessions (or lack thereof), this is not a problem that will blow over. The debate isn’t about an extra thousands bucks a year for a Duke education. It’s about whether, when given other options, America’s parents will continue to dole out absurd sums of money toward tuition that only partly goes to the benefit of their children.

So let’s start talking.

Jeremy Ruch is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Wednesday.


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