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Froma Harrop
Froma Harrop
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Why Corvettes Cost Less Than College


That was a pleasant stroll across the Ivy League campus of Brown University, in Providence, R.I. I saw the gardening crews, the maintenance trucks, the pricey restoration work on Faunce Arch. I passed the skating rink, the president's mansion and the new Department of Facilities Management building.

As I surveyed the handsome spread (tax-exempt, sadly), I wondered, "Is all this really necessary — I mean — for the education of these students?"

Such subversive thoughts are hardly original. "A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard," Herman Melville, the author of "Moby Dick," famously said over 150 years ago.

Bill Gates recently predicted: "Five years from now on the Web for free you'll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university."

A year at a university costs an average $50,000, the Microsoft founder and Harvard dropout said last month. The Web can deliver the same quality education for $2,000.

Yet American colleges continue to float in the bubble of economic exceptionalism once occupied by Detroit carmakers. American median income has grown 6.5 times over the past 40 years, but the cost of attending one's own state college has ballooned 15 times. This kind of income-price mismatch haunted the housing market right before it melted down.

Tuition at the private University of Southern California has risen 360 percent since 1980, to $41,434 a year. At the University of Illinois, a state school, the annual tuition of $13,658 is six times that of 1980. These numbers are all adjusted for inflation and don't include room and board.

As the father of a student at Kenyon College told me, "It's like driving a new Corvette to Ohio every September, leaving the keys and taking the bus home."

American universities now rake in $40 billion a year more than they did 30 years ago.

And most of that money isn't going for academics, according to Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus in their book, "Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It."

For starters, the money is going to more numerous and more pampered sports teams. Duke University in Durham, N.C., spends over $20,000 a year per varsity golf player. And these squads rarely pay for themselves. There are 629 college football teams, and only 14 make money.

The number of administrators per student at colleges has about doubled over 30 years, according to Hacker and Dreifus. Their titles point to such questionable duties as "director for learning communities" and "assistant dean of students for substance education."

Compensation for college presidents, meanwhile, has soared to corporate CEO levels. Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., pays its president $1.2 million a year!

Universities are also competing to make their on-campus experiences more like a resort than a bookish monastery. Some dorms feature granite counters, kitchens and walk-in closets. Fancy health clubs have replaced musty gyms.

What else are students getting in return for their enormous college bills? Some useful contacts for the future and four extra years to figure life out.

And they do receive an education, though the quality doesn't seem to justify the rising costs. Full-time faculty members are being paid more for teaching less. Some elite colleges now offer sabbaticals every third year instead of the traditional seventh. Harvard has 48 history professors, and 20 of them are somewhere else this year.

The market will eventually recognize the out-of-whack economics of today's "place-based colleges" and intervene. Some day soon, Web alternatives will let students of modest means try their hand at a college education. And what a great day that will be.

To find out more about Froma Harrop, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




6 Comments | Post Comment
I agree 100%. Why go to college and pay $100,000 to $200,000 to get a degree so that one can be a slave to a liberal the rest of one's life (paying back student loans); especially when there are numerous people getting a free ride because of their skin color, sex, or the Liberal cause of the day? The thing I dislike most about my college education is that, via tuition, I help to support a bunch of worthless Liberals' lavish lifestyle.
Such is crazy especially when there are jobs that pay just as much that do not even require a degree? Also, one can obtain a two year degree from a community college that will result in a well-paying job without the $1,500/month student loan payment for 30 years.
I would never pay for a college education from a college that has a bunch of liberal teachers again. Nor do I recommend anyone else do the same when asked.
Comment: #1
Posted by: SusansMirror
Tue Sep 21, 2010 7:43 AM
"As I surveyed the handsome spread (tax-exempt, sadly)..."

While I don't disagree with the point of your article, what's so sad about the tax-exempt status of schools? Your underlying thought is that it's obviously somehow wrong for Brown University to be allowed to keep their own money.

One of the things I most despise about the Liberal philosophy is that it assumes that all wealth is government's to do with as it pleases, and it's only by it's generosity and restraint are people--and institutions--allowed to keep their own wealth.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Henry Miller
Tue Sep 21, 2010 8:22 AM
Thanks to Ms Harrop for a great article. I attended and graduated from the University of Illinois---got an outstanding education. Room, board, tuition cost my first year(1959-60)?-----approximately $1200.

Today's costs for higher education are a great disservice to the country, families and young people.
Comment: #3
Posted by: CWB
Wed Sep 22, 2010 7:10 AM
An alternate title: "Why a used Ford van costs more than college."

The majority of students attend colleges costing less than $9000/year before financial aid. The average in-state tuition at a state university is $7000/year before financial aid.

The higher education marketplace is remarkably open and diverse: there are about 4200 colleges and universities competing for your attention, of which 2400 offer at least a bachelor's degree.
Comment: #4
Posted by: David Snowball
Wed Sep 22, 2010 8:14 AM
Sorry: hit "post message" when I was shooting for "preview."
The bottom line is this: no one complains that Corvettes cost a mint, because no one is forcing you to buy a Corvette. The same thing is true with colleges: no one is forcing you to go to Princeton. If you want what Princeton offers (the life-long right to brag that you're a Princeton alum), then you should be prepared for pay what Princeton asks. If they ask too much, don't go there.
The reality is that the quality of education you receive is not predicted by the wealth or fame of the school you're looking at. Indeed, some research finds the exact opposite is true: the flashiest schools engage in the fewest high-impact teaching activities. As a result, if you want an education rather than an expensive wall decoration, go to SUNY - Binghamton (now Binghamton University) for $7,000. Or to the University of Northern Iowa, or any of a hundred other schools with a stronger teaching focus. If you're mature enough to benefit from an enormous amount of personal instruction and guidance, look at strong smaller schools which have an exclusive focus on undergraduate education: my own college (Augustana College, in Rock Island, Illinois) is among them. You'll pay more than at a public college, but you're not paying for a skating rink, president's mansion or Faunce Arch. You're paying for intense, small group instruction from folks like me. In truth, it costs a lot to provide classes with ten or 20 students, led by full-time faculty. And not everyone will benefit to the same degree from it. For many 18 year olds, an intense educational environment might be poor investment.
But, here's the good news: no one is making them go! They can get a solid, if not spectacular, education at a tenth the price by starting at a good community college. They can get a "wow" experience at a world-renowned school for twice the price. It's a question of making the choice that's best for you: a Corvette or a Focus? An Ivy or a branch campus?
None of this, by the way, is meant to defend college pricing policies. It's clear that some institutions pour money into prestige projects (Harvard has added six million square feet of new buildings, without increasing by a single student), while many build budgets backward from revenue projections ("we'll spend however much we can bring in"). It's also clear that much of the problem is driven by the ego of parents and the indulgence of students (for whom the traditional 10x12' double-occupancy dorm room is as acceptable as the Black Hole of Calcutta). The system is goofed, but pretending that the high end is the entire system simply doesn't help us understand or address the problems.
Comment: #5
Posted by: David Snowball
Wed Sep 22, 2010 8:48 AM
Glad to see your editorial “Why College Costs More Than a ‘Vette.” Our local paper had an article about the tremendous debt graduates have and the increase in the numbers of graduates who are defaulting on their loans. I have griped for years, “Why are these students being advised to attend colleges and universities that are so high priced?” Who is pushing that attitude? Who is getting a pay back to send these students in that direction? Is it our gucci mentality? Do these naive graduates think the pay will go up as soon as they reveal the name of the college they attended? We have wonderful educational programs at universities and colleges costing less than $20,000 a year. Why do they feel it is better to accrue debts at the rate of $50,000 a year? Thanks for your article.
Comment: #6
Posted by: C. Patridge
Sat Oct 2, 2010 7:16 PM
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