College Just Isn’t Worth It

Why do we keep paying more for the same thing?

I really don’t want to pick on Drexel, the school that the late, great Constantine Papadakis transformed by running it like a corporation. Every college is in Drexel’s position. It’s a very good position. Drexel can charge whatever it wants to educate our children. In fact, the more the better.

I had a conversation recently with a guy from Cherry Hill named Alan Chapman, whose son, Glenn, is in his fourth year at Drexel. Glenn did something pretty much every kid does—he changed majors. This is when things got a little sticky. Last spring, Alan thought he was up to speed on payments. In June, he got a new bill for some $19,000, for charges including a laboratory fee, health insurance, an activity fee and the big one, something called “program change reassessment,” which was $9,500.

“Program change reassessment” means that Glenn was billed for switching his major, from digital media to sociology. That’s what cost Alan Chapman $9,500.

It took Alan, a financial planner, a few conversations with the bursar and then the provost at Drexel before he could wrap his head around that charge. It seems that digital media is a major that includes an internship, and students in those majors are charged less. So when Glenn switched to a non-internship major–sociology–he was billed retroactively for those semesters in which he had been undercharged. To the tune of $9,500.

Again, any kid in college, as we all know, is pretty likely to change his mind and therefore his major once or several times; do you think a $9,500 fee attached to checking out something new might just kill that desire?

That Drexel story got me thinking about how our colleges generally truck along untouched by any consumer demands, as costs have gotten absurd. It’s not hard to get, though, why parents line up like lemmings to dole out more and more cash every year to get junior matriculating at the right school.

First off, the money is there. Federal loans were made widely available to students (meaning, often, their parents) a few years ago, as college had become not just a necessary stepping stone but laced with rank: Everyone should go to the absolute best college he can get into, which often translates into most expensive. That’s one reason for the skyrocketing cost. (Consider the housing bubble. When everyone could get a mortgage, and owning a home was becoming a universal dream, what happened to the value of houses? Though a house, at least, can be resold.)

I have a dirty secret. My son Nick applied to Temple and West Chester and Drexel last year. I hoped that he wouldn’t get into Drexel, because I didn’t want to borrow the money to send him there—four years would approach $200,000–and I didn’t want to have to tell him I couldn’t make that leap. But he didn’t get in. Now he’s at Temple, where, in fact, he wanted to go. It costs in the low 20s–practically chickenfeed.

With such driven consumers, what’s the incentive for schools to keep costs down? Alan Chapman happens to be on the board of a private prep school on Long Island; the finance committee naturally makes a lot of calculations in determining tuition, Chapman says, “and one is looking at the market. What does the competition cost?” The same is obviously true for colleges: “It’s gotten to the point where they charge these amounts because they can. I don’t know if you can go back, and figure out if a given school really should cost $55,000. Can you get just as good an education for $30,000? Nobody can answer that.”

Though I think we can.

When I entered Penn State in 1972, tuition was a thousand dollars a year, or $5,152.44 in 2010 dollars. Tuition at PSU is now about $16,000 a year.

I’ll allow that costs of providing an education—paying professors and maintaining the lovely University Park campus and the like—have risen faster than inflation. I will also concede that the bells and whistles of college now—nicer places to work out and study, better medical facilities, smart boards instead of chalkboards, advisors at the ready for whatever problems arise—all come at a higher cost.

But it’s incredible to think that somebody arriving at Penn State today is getting something that’s three times the value of what I got. The basic stuff of college—living on your own (or, more pressing, having to negotiate living with a stranger three feet away), taking classes, considering just what the hell you might do in life—has not changed at all. I’m not ancient and foolish enough to cry that college was better in my day, given that I drank and screwed off most of my way through it. But I will propose that, at heart, college is pretty close to the same experience it’s been since about 1967, which was the time most schools stopped playing mother hen to young men and especially women and let kids grow up away from home more or less as they saw fit.

So why, as parents, do we keep ponying up more and more for the same experience that our parents could afford and we cannot?