In his farewell address, Dwight Eisenhower warned against a military-industrial complex that would seek to enrich itself through false appeals to the common good. Today, it is higher education that is growing rich by convincing the public that its actions are for their good.
The costs that universities and colleges are charging students range from the outrageous to the obscene. As Mark Brennan noted in these pages in September, tuition has increased more than three times the rate of inflation since 1980. Paul Streitz of VDare.com has calculated that, if tuition increases had kept pace with inflation since 1960, the average tuition at a private college today would be $9,000 per year, not $44,000. In 1980, the average college cost of $3,500 per year represented 18 percent of median household income. Today, average college costs represent 44 percent of median household income, and many private schools charge tuition well in excess of the median household income of approximately $50,000 per year. Many students used to pay for college through part-time and summer employment. That is now impossible for the vast majority. It is true that, thanks to the alchemy of financial aid, many students pay only a portion of the tuition charged by their college. But the detailed financial disclosure required for financial aid is designed to enable colleges to determine with great precision all that a family can afford to pay and then to extract every penny, and much financial aid comes in the form of loans, which must be repaid.
Government has played an indispensable role in the steady escalation of college costs. The federal student-loan program enables colleges to continue raising tuition at a rate far exceeding inflation, as do the myriad other direct and indirect subsidies that the federal and state governments provide to higher education. Equally valuable to the higher-education industry has been the relentless government propaganda on its behalf. In a February 2009 address to Congress, President Obama set the goal of doubling the number of Americans who attend college, and in a 2011 speech in Austin to a crowd filled with members of the academic-industrial complex Obama declared that “I want every child in Texas and every child in America ready to graduate, ready to go to college.” Comparable statements have been made by many politicians from both major political parties, and they help convince parents that Johnny needs to go to college, and that every cent they pay for Johnny to be in college is worth it, even if it means draining the family’s savings and saddling Johnny with crippling debt.
This enormous explosion of college costs cannot be justified by improvements in education. Education is not better than it was in 1960 or even in 1980. In fact, it’s worse, because it’s been dumbed down at all levels, which is the only way to accommodate more and more students in college. In a brief conversation after a speech he gave discussing his book Real Education, Charles Murray agreed with my suggestion that, for most American students, a bachelor’s degree today is the equivalent of a diploma from a good public high school in 1960. There is this difference, though: That high-school diploma was vastly cheaper than today’s bachelor degree, even taking into account the property taxes that support most public high schools.
And the vast streams of money flowing into higher education have largely been wasted—on needlessly lavish facilities, luxurious dorms, endless layers of bureaucracy, and increased pay for the already privileged denizens of higher education. Ohio State’s recently retired president Gordon Gee was receiving total compensation of $2.14 million at the time of his retirement. He lived in a mansion owned by the university, remodeled during his tenure for $1.3 million and filled with furniture and artwork costing $673,000. Between 2007 and 2012 Gee racked up expenses totaling $7.7 million, and he received a retirement package worth $5.8 million. Although Gee’s retirement was preceded by controversy over his quip that “you just can’t trust those damn Catholics,” more revealing was his comment about Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany: “We need to make certain he keeps his hands out of our pockets while we support him” in aggressively expanding the Big Ten to bring in more money. Greed that would arouse the admiration of Gordon Gekko is alive and well in the halls of academe.
Many colleges have become incubators of cultural Marxism. It is a fair debate whether the academy, Hollywood, or the mainstream media has done more to degrade American culture, but at least no one is bequeathing his estate to MSNBC or Miramax. According to the Council for Aid to Education, Americans gave $30.3 billion to higher education in 2011, and this number is rising. There is a better way to treat institutions that now despise what they were founded to do. Georgetown alumnus and Exorcist author William Peter Blatty is pursuing a canon-law lawsuit to have Georgetown stripped of its status as a Catholic university. May more conservative alumni follow his lead.