A recent issue of Time magazine includes an article called "Why Colleges Cost Too Much," in which American universities are accused of a deliberate effort to charge students and their families as much as possible. Billed as a "special investigation," the article focuses almost entirely on Ivy League institutions, with special emphasis on the University of Pennsylvania, from which the author was graduated in 1976. Since then, he points out, Penn's tuition has risen from $3,790 a year to $21,130.
Among other things, the article accuses those universities of conspiring not only to fix their tuition rates but of deliberately setting their fees as high as possible in order to equate cost with quality in consumers' minds. While there is no denying that the cost of a college education has increased faster than the inflation rate, the article ignores a number of important factors in its analysis of how universities handle their finances. Not the least of these omissions is the fact that in an age when knowledge has become the most valuable and powerful product on earth, it stands to reason that its price is going up. Universities pay faculty and staff members more today, because the market for highly skilled people has become more competitive.
Likewise, the technology needed to prepare students for the job market has become both more expensive and less durable. Replacement of outmoded computer equipment was a minor budget issue in the mid-1970s, but a very major consideration now. The largest classroom facility at Purdue, the Liberal Arts and Education Building, opened in 1993 at a construction cost of $28 million. During the period since ground was broken for that building, Purdue has spent almost as much on upgrades of academic spaces on campus. Other major expenses that drive costs up are unfunded federal and state mandates, including increasingly strict environmental regulations and provisions for the disabled. In this category are not only students, staff and visitors with physical disabilities, but a far larger number of students who have special learning problems.
These issues were among the important factors not discussed seriously in the Time article. However, the most misleading aspect of the story was that it strongly implied that a handful of highly exclusive private institutions that charge extremely high fees are representative of America's entire higher education system.
While these comparatively high numbers make for compelling headlines, they are extreme examples. The vast majority of America's students attend colleges and universities that offer rates that are a fraction of those in the Ivy League category. Purdue's annual fees total $3,208 for in-state residents who attend the West Lafayette campus. Out-of-state students pay an additional $7,428. Most of our students receive some form of financial aid, and even those who graduate with debts to pay are far better off financially than those who do not take advantage of the opportunity for higher education.
The vast majority of students who attend Purdue have their lives changed for the better. The educational experience is a bargain for them by any standard. The same case could be made for many other institutions.
While public scrutiny of something as vital to our nation's future as higher education is most appropriate, I believe we do ourselves a disservice when we engage in blind criticism that is based on anecdotal information. The message that Americans receive from the news media is that something is drastically wrong with our colleges and universities. The truth is that higher education is one of the best things America does. Furthermore, taking advantage of the opportunities a college education presents is the most important step any young person can take for his or her future and for the good of society.
Could we do some things better? Absolutely. But a continual emphasis on the negative will undermine faith in a precious and essentially sound system. If that discourages young people from pursuing the education they will need to thrive in the next century, we will have perpetrated a real tragedy upon ourselves.
As use of the World Wide Web expands, more and more people are getting information about Purdue through this medium. Hundreds of Internet sites are now available on the University's computing system, and the number grows every day. Our prospective students now can fill out applications on the Web, and many of our publications -- including this letter -- also are available Anyone with access to this form of communication can explore Purdue electronically by starting with its home page. The address is http://www.purdue.edu
Steven C. Beering