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Who should go to college and who should pay for it?



Those are the real underlying issues that need to be addressed in any comprehensive discussion of the extraordinary increase in the cost of higher education in America over the past half century.

I argue here that purported cuts in legislative funding of American higher ed have ultimately little to do with that increase, in large part because these “cuts” are, subject to some exceptions and caveats, mostly imaginary.


Average public school tuition in 2014$

Average private school tuition in 2014$

How do these rates of tuition increase correlate with legislative appropriations for higher ed?

total state appropriations 1960-2015

Pell Grants by year

total state appropriations and pell grants 1975-2015

It’s quite an interpretive challenge to translate these numbers into the claim, made universally by higher ed administrators, that fifty or more years of practically continual tuition rate hikes have been caused by cuts in public subsidies.

Now it’s true that a crucial factor in all this has been a sharp rise in the relative percentage of young Americans going to college:

Total 18-23 year olds in the US

Total higher education enrollment

Because of the big increase in higher ed enrollment, legislative subsidies per student, which climbed at a very rapid clip from the 1960s through the 1980s, have been basically flat for the past 25 years:

State appropriations and Pell grants per student enrolled in higher ed

Yet tuition grew rapidly in real terms when subsidies per student were increasing, and continued to grow when per capita subsidies flattened out.

Note that, as I pointed out recently, the money flooding into higher ed over the past several decades actually correlates with a decrease in the average salary being paid to college and university faculty. Full-time faculty salaries have barely risen since 1970, while the percentage of faculty who are part-time (and therefore much lower paid) has increased enormously:

full time faculty salaries

Percentage of faculty who are full time

Obviously, the standard narrative that tuition has increased as a response to “declining” public subsidies is at best a gross oversimplification of a much more complicated story. I’ll discuss that story in another post.

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