Higher Education for All: The $15,000 Problem

October 17, 2011

The Delta Cost Project has released an important new study, Trends in College Spending, 1999-2009, that is well worth reading, especially because it charts how higher education institutions have been proceeding through the great recession.

There is lots worth commenting about in this report, but I want to note something that the authors don’t focus upon, that I think can be seen in this meaty graph:

The point that the report is making here (and it’s an important point) is that enrollment is highest in higher education in the kinds of institutions that spend the least per student on education.  And you can also clearly see that average educational expenditures per student vary considerably across kinds of institutions, from over $35,000 per student at private research institutions to about $10,000 at community colleges.

But I want to call attention to what I’m coming to think of as the $15,000 problem.  Average educational spending per student at community colleges may be $10,000, but that’s probably too low to effect quality education.  Remember completion rates are quite poor at most community colleges.  And average spending per student at all other kinds of institutions is $15,000 and higher.

$15,000 per student per year is probably our best estimate of what it costs to provide higher education of acceptable quality today.  If we are going to provide a good higher education for all young men and women in this country, someone is going to have to pay that much.  The student (or his/her family) may pay some; governments may provide some; philanthropy may provide some.  But $15,000 per year per student is what it is going to take.

Do we have a national strategy for finding $15,000 per student for all students?  I don’t think so, particularly when we note that wages and salaries of the bottom 80% of Americans are stagnant or sagging, and that it is from that bottom 80% that most of the students will come.

Might technology or other innovations reduce that $15,000 figure.  Perhaps a little, but I’m not optimistic.  I want to stay focused on the $15,000 problem.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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