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Free college, misty water-color memory edition


The Biden administration’s decision to forgive a tiny fraction of the $1.6 trillion worth of government-issued student debt out there is causing quite a meltdown in MAGAland.

I’ll have more to say about this soon, but for the moment I just want to make a couple of quick notes:

When people talk about “free college” as if designing such a thing was equivalent to cold fusion or genuinely good-tasting light beer, everybody seems to forget that THE BABY BOOMERS ALL WENT TO COLLEGE FOR FREE. All 783,561,321 of us.

OK this is hyperbole, but not by that much.

In fact, the average cost of tuition and fees at four-year public universities stayed very close to $2,500 per year, in 2020 dollars, for the entire time frame (mid-1960s to mid-1980s) when my generation — people try to put us down — was going to college.

That’s not technically free, but as a practical matter it means that the cost of going to a four-public university back in the not-so-distant day was essentially the opportunity cost involved in spending four years, more or less, going to school full-time, more or less, rather than working for money.

In other words, we did have, for most practical purposes, free college education in America quite recently. What happened?

Well one thing that happened is that the people running higher education in America decided to make it radically more expensive to go to college, because they started spending vastly more money to operate these institutions.

Some figures:

Total Revenues for Higher Education in January 2018 dollars:

Revenue per student 2018:  $35,234 (FY2018)

Expenditures per student 2018:  $31,700

Revenue per student 2008:  $28,362 in 2018 dollars

Expenditures per student 2008:  $27,139 (2018$)

Total revenue per student in 1998 in 2018 dollars:  $25,312

Total expenditure per student in 1998:  $22,065 (2018$)

Total revenue per student in 1988:  $19,690 in 2018 dollars

Total expenditures per student in 1988:  $19,094 (2018$)

Total revenue per student in 1978:  $16,628 in 2018 dollars

Total expenditures per student in 1978:  $16,155 in 2018

Total revenues per student in 1970:  $17,624 in 2018 dollars

Total expenditures per student in 1970:  $17,237 in 2018 dollars

Total revenues per student in 1960: $13,447 in 2018 dollars

Total expenditures per student in 1960:  $13,017 in 2018 dollars

This is fun. More stats:

Over the the last decade core revenue at independent (non-religiously affiliated) private colleges and universities in the USA has increased by 148% in inflation-adjusted per student terms.

(Core revenue includes tuition, government subsidies, endowment income and other private gifts, and research grants. It doesn’t include revenue from associated activities like student housing and hospitals.)

At religiously affiliated private colleges and universities core revenue has increased by 87% in real per-student terms over the last ten years.

Meanwhile, at public institutions, core revenue has increased by “only” 23.4% in these terms. (This is still 36% greater than per capita GDP growth over this same period).

Overall, core revenue revenue increased by nearly 50% in real per capita terms at American colleges and universities between FY2009 and FY2019.

The other day, the commissioner of the Big Ten athletic conference, who gets paid more than four million dollars per year to run a consortium of amateur athletic teams, was fielding some mildly skeptical questions from journalists, who were asking why exactly the conference had “monetized” itself to the tune of a bunch of new media deals that were going to generate $1.4 billion per year.

It’s very expensive to operate our athletic departments,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren told ESPN. “These new deals will continually provide stability for our athletic departments to service our students in a highly productive manner, allowing them to get a world-class education but be treated in a manner that they rightfully deserve.

It’s very expensive. I mean that’s just science.

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