The rhetoric of tuition inflation

By Felix Salmon
November 16, 2010
Stanley Fish would.

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Let’s say I earn $50,000 a year, and a widget costs $1,000. Then my pay goes up 3%, while the cost of the widget goes up 10%—year after year. Would you say that the widget has been getting more affordable over time? Stanley Fish would. Fish is approvingly citing a new book from Robert Archibald and David Feldman, which he quotes saying that “for most families higher education is more affordable than it was in the past”:

Here their target is a way of framing the issue. Usually the question asked is, “What percentage of a family’s income goes to the cost of higher education?” Archibald and Feldman prefer to “ask instead whether the amount left over after subtracting the cost of college is rising or falling over time.” The answer they give (buttressed by statistical tables) is “rising”: what their data show is that “over long stretches of time, college costs have been rising at a faster pace than income per worker, yet the average worker’s actual dollar income has gone up by more than the costs, leaving more resources on the family to spend on other things.”

I fear to think what statistical sleight-of-hand might be hidden in that qualifier about “over long stretches of time,” especially since in recent years real college costs have continued to rise fast even as real median incomes have gone nowhere or shrunk. But in general this approach to gauging affordability is absolutely bonkers: the percentage rise in price is completely ignored, and only the dollar rise in price matters. Using this technique, just about anything can be considered “more affordable than it was in the past.” If the widget rises in cost by $100 and my annual pay goes up by $1,500, that does not in and of itself settle the question of whether the widget has become more affordable.

What’s more, I haven’t read the book, but Fish’s take does seem to be at odds with its official blurb:

A technological trio of broad economic forces has come together in the last thirty years to cause higher education costs…

A college education has become less reachable to a broad swathe of the American public at the same time that the market demand for highly educated people has soared. This affordability problem has deep roots. The authors explore how cost pressure, the changing wage structure of the US economy, and the complexity of financial aid policy combine to reduce access to higher education below what we need in the 21st century labor market.

I’m also completely unconvinced by Fish’s explanation of the main reason behind cost inflation at colleges:

Chief among these is the change in the sophistication and cost of the technology that has at once transformed the setting of higher education and become one of the areas of knowledge higher education must impart to students. Students expect to be instructed in the new technologies, and that instruction requires their installation, and then as new refinements emerge, their re-installation. “[A] modern university must provide students with an up-to-date education that familiarizes students with the techniques and associated machinery that are used in the workplace the students must enter.”

Were colleges and universities to strike a Luddite stance and hold out for pencil, paper and blackboard instruction, they would “in effect be guilty of educational malpractice.” When it comes to incurring these new expenses, they “do not have a real choice.” In no sense, then, are changes in price “driven by any pathology in the higher education industry.

It’s true that computers are more expensive than pencils, and it’s surely true that some part of the typical college-tuition fee is spent on information technology. But we’re talking about fee inflation here: in order for Fish’s argument to hold water, IT costs at colleges would have to be rising faster than inflation year in and year out. Which strains credulity, in a world where IT is getting steadily cheaper and where a lot of IT services can now take place in the cloud. Even if the move into the cloud is only now beginning, I very much doubt that it’s ever going to result in a decrease in tuition fees.

The fact is that technology is a way of reducing the costs of education much more than it is a factor in their growth. That’s why Rupert Murdoch has just hired Joel Klein:

The likelihood that Murdoch’s education strategy will involve either charter schools or online college-diploma mills is very close to zero. Instead, it is all but certain to revolve around one of the most fertile areas of innovation today: the application of digital technology to learning. In the next few years, “what you’re going to see in educational software and new solutions and online learning is going to be game-changing,” says Klein, in terms of “the ability of new technology to both improve instruction and the quality of it through new learning platforms.”

“Archibald and Feldman,” says Fish, “allow us to say that at least in the area of costs the fault lies not in ourselves, but in the stars.” Which I’m sure is convenient for Fish, who describes himself as a “dean who encountered the rising costs of personnel, laboratory equipment, security, compliance demands, information systems and much more every day.” But it’s not particularly believable.

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