The High Price of Higher Education

Are the results of a college education in the U.S. worth the high tuition costs?

Maral Askari, Contributing writer

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It’s the time of the year when we’re full of festive cheer – Our wallets? Not so much! The thought of heading back to student poverty where tuitions, fees, and other expenses eat into most students’ budgets is indeed a haunting one. For many prospective students, international and domestic, one of the most pressing issues to consider is how much studying at their institution of choice will cost. While there are many factors determining the cost of education at a specific institute (the country in which the school is located, average household income, percentage of a parent’s income contributed to their children’s higher education), tuition fees still constitute a large portion of the expenses spent.  

According to the analyzed tuition fee data from Quacquarelli Symmonds (QS) Top Universities, for academic year 2018/2019, the United States leads the world in tuition fees with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford, and Harvard University as the most expensive institutes in world (with $51,520, $50,703, and $46,340 USD in annual tuition fees respectively). While many students benefit from different forms of financial aid such as scholarships or grants,Forbes recently reported that by the time of graduation, students on average owe $39,400 in loan debts. These numbers constitute the second highest consumer debt category, raising the question: “Why is a college education in America so expensive?”

In our current economic and social discourse, having a degree does not guarantee a job, but is considered “a form of protection against unemployment and the inequality that it engenders” (NYtimes). Is tackling the hefty numbers for higher education worth it anymore?

The amount of money spent on student-welfare services such as housing, meals, health care, and transportation (a category that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development defines as “ancillary services”)  largely contributes to the annual expenses of students, making the U.S number one in world rankings.

The main culprit, however, is not the seemingly decadent services, but rather routine costs of educational operations like paying staff and faculty. As Amanda Ripley from The Atlantic points out, college education as a service does not get any cheaper with manufacturing technologies and advances. Furthermore, as a service delivered by workers with university degrees, it has grown more expensive in the recent decades, matching the prices of surgeons, engineers, and lawyers. Moreover, as most global rankings of universities largely consider the amount of research published by faculty as a defining metric, college administrators pay professors accordingly higher to keep up in the race. With no central mechanism to control price increases, the cost of education remains unregulated and escalating.

Although there is no official data that suggests American colleges can guarantee obvious and consistent academic value, there is enough evidence that suggests Americans with college degrees earn 75 percent more compared to those who only completed high school.

Though the numbers vary considerably depending on the college one attends and the type of degree one earns, the earning gap between college graduates and workers with no higher education remains wider now more than ever. The growing disparity contributes to higher pay gains, more opportunities for employment, better geographic mobility, and higher likelihood of home ownership enjoyed by college graduates. Thus the greater demand for educated workers in the U.S convinces many to opt for expensive higher education, leading many to believe that the solution is to gather a more comprehensive approach to obtaining skills rather than to send more students off to colleges, where almost 4 in every 10 drop out before graduation. Whatever the solution may be, from vocational skills training programs to online courses and for-profit schools, education remains inarguably one of the most important factors in better employment opportunities and financial wellbeing.