What’s in the “college bubble”…and what may happen when it bursts

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In a previous life, I was a sociologist of higher education; I still work in the field, teaching sociology and psychology at Rasmussen College. Thus, my attention was piqued by a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education arguing that we’re facing a college bubble. “According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education,” notes the Chronicle, “over the past 25 years, average college tuition and fees have risen by 440 percent—more than four times the rate of inflation and almost twice the rate of medical care.” The article continues: “There is a growing sense among the public that higher education might be overpriced and under-delivering.”

Why has the price of higher education risen so steeply in recent decades? Contrary to some assumptions, it is not because colleges are greedily gouging students. As with theater tickets, many patrons of higher education pay less than the sticker price for admission—and as with theater, even if every audience member did pay the entire sticker price, it still wouldn’t cover the total cost of putting on the production. Both colleges and theaters rely on donations, grants, and endowments to make up the difference between their income and their expenditures. My father, like many baby boomers, remembers when a good education could be had at the University of Minnesota—or any similar land-grant institution—for a fraction of what that education costs today. Part of the reason for the increase is that state subsidies have declined, but that certainly doesn’t explain the entire increase. Where is all that new money going?

From elementary school to graduate school, education used to be a much simpler proposition. You took classes (often very large classes), you did your homework, you got your grades. That was it. Of course, there were always teachers who went above and beyond to provide personal mentoring, but that was off the books. In contrast, think about everything you generally get for the—admittedly high—price of room, board, and tuition at a four-year college or university today.

• lectures

• seminars

• workshops

• discussion sections

• computer resources—including your own e-mail account, server space, and public computers

• safe, clean, and conveniently located living space

• a range—often a generous range—of food options

• resources for physical and mental health

• social support via counseling and college-sponsored activities

• support for international travel and pre-professional training such as student teaching and professional internships

• access to a library, often an entire library system—including online journals and databases that would be prohibitively pricey to access independently

• access to physical resources including gyms, auditoriums, and park-like outdoor spaces

• protection by a full-fledged independent security force

• access to several unique campus publications including the student paper, the college paper, the alternative weeklies, the literary magazine, the erotica journal, etc.

• access to speakers, events, performances, etc.

• transportation via campus shuttle

• and much, much more…most of it free once you’ve paid to get in.

The fact that students often find these resources inconvenient or otherwise less than ideal is immaterial: the institution still has to pay for them. Further, intellectual standards are rising for faculty: at any college you’re apt to find it worthwhile to pay for room and board at, you’re going to find faculty who are publishing original research in national and international journals. That kind of research costs money—money for the material costs of the research (including support staff and graduate students) as well as money to pay faculty salaries that must be competitive enough to attract the kind of academic firepower students now expect. (Though faculty salaries today are not what they could be, it’s best not to romanticize the past: my grandfather was a full-time professor at St. Thomas College, but he and many of his colleagues had to deliver beer in the summers to support their families.) The fact that tenure-track faculty need time to conduct research necessitates the employment of a supplemental level of lecturers, adjuncts, teaching assistants, and staff who will make sure that undergraduates’ educational needs are adequately met.

So what is the “college bubble”? It’s not just an economic concept, it’s the environment in which full-time undergraduates today live: a self-contained world in which they eat, sleep, socialize, and, of course, learn. As the Chronicle article suggests, the bursting of this bubble may mean a re-streamlining of higher education: more students living at home, more students working while they attend school (in my dad’s day, many students at the U would live at home and pay their entire tuition bill by working at a part-time job), and a much sparer suite of resources and activities.

This arrangement isn’t a thing of the past: it’s still with us in the form of community and technical colleges. Rasmussen has no dorms, no sports teams, a student senate that organizes campus talent shows instead of Third Eye Blind concerts, a cafeteria with vending machines instead of a hot food line (and a cereal bar, and a grill, and a salad bar, and a dessert bar, and a vegetarian section, and a fruit rack). Supportive staff and faculty are happy to talk to students about their personal concerns, but if a student has a 3 a.m. mental-health crisis or drinks enough tequila to give herself alcohol poisoning, she will have to look off-campus for an urgent-care clinic. The bathrooms do not have boxes full of free condoms (though they do have Neil Diamond piped in, which is a nice touch). Guest speakers are state representatives, not foreign leaders. There is a gym at the Eagan campus, but there’s no pool or track or locker room, and if the exercise science class is in session, you’re going to have to wait. Faculty members are smart and qualified, but they don’t have much time to conduct original research—when a faculty member travels to an academic conference out of state, it’s the buzz of the campus. So what do you get at Rasmussen? An education. And that extra $40,000 a year? Keep it; it’s yours. If this is life beyond the bubble, I think we’ll be okay.

Photo: The late Foley Theater at the University of St. Thomas.

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