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Sorry Bernie – Tuition free college can’t ever come back!

In the not too distant past, your average college student could get a degree in four years and walk away with no debt from almost every public university.  Whatever the costs where, they could be offset with a summer job and maybe a few hundred bucks from the parents.  In the seventies, my entire undergrad costs (room, board, tuition, textbooks, etc.) at a public state university were paid for by summer jobs and modest Social Security survivor benefits due to my mother’s passing away.

Those days are gone.  My wife and I have managed to set aside almost $200,000 for our two kids to attend a public university.  And we expect our kids will leave after four years with empty bank accounts and probably still some owed debt.  The frightening part is they’ll still likely be better off financially than many of their graduating classmates.

So who’s to blame for the spiralling costs?  We have the usual villains. Out-of-control spending on big time athletic programs, uncaring governments that funnel money away from education, and of course, all those bloated bureaucracies and armies of administrators that have overgrown universities like unchecked kudzu.

Athletics? Check.  Why are many universities now trying to become the equivalent of major league sports franchises, when study after study shows only financial costs for the vast majority?

Politicians?  Partial check.  Yes, when we look at the percentage of a university’s budget that state or federal governments support.  The decline appears dire.  But in a number of cases, the dollar amounts have not drastically declined and, indeed, have increased.  It is just that it costs far more to operate a university nowadays than it ever did in the past.  Which leaves, of course…

The expanded bureaucracy!  Yes, but consider this.  In the good old days, all you needed to run a university was a small set of buildings: Classrooms, offices, some labs (for the sciency types), libraries, and some spartan dorms.  Teaching was a guy lecturing to students in room full of desks.  Instructional equipment was a blackboard and box of chalk.  Students expected their dorms to have no more luxuries than a bed, desk, chair and lamp.  Labs were generally classrooms where sinks replaced the desks.

The modern university, however, has become what would be better described as a University Corporation City.  In addition to the bricks & mortar and their professors, here’s what the today’s university has to have:

  • Its own police force.
  • Student centers with a variety of exercise equipment that set private gyms to shame.
  • Computing facilities, wired classrooms and wifi throughout.
  • Lab safety officers, with yearly inspections.
  • Animal care facilities and compliance officers.
  • Modern facilities for chemistry, molecular biology and genomic work. This includes having buildings with state of art air circulation systems and established protocols and procedures for storing, collecting and disposing of hazardous chemicals.
  • Buildings with adequate systems that heat in the winter and cool in the summer (In my time as an undergrad, our ‘systems’ were called windows. You opened them in the summer and closed them in the winter.)
  • Disability access to all areas of the campus.
  • Offices and programs for students with a variety of learning disabilities.
  • Offices and programs for improving instruction and adding technology to classrooms.
  • Infrastructure to advance and promote diversity, including offices and outreach programs.
  • Compliance with all aspects of Title IX, including a cadre of people to handle harassment and violence complaints and issues.
  • Preparedness programs for natural disasters (and lately for having an active shooter on campus).
  • Training programs (both online and in-person) for dealing with or avoiding: Sexual harassment and bias, lab safety, biohazards, animal care, distraught students, how to properly conduct a job search, earthquakes, cybersecurity, and active shooters. (This list is far from exhaustive!)
  • A large facilities complex with 100’s of trained people to repair and take care of all the above 24/7.
  • Insurance just in case something happens.
  • A large staff of lawyers – just in case something happens that could or does end up in court.
  • Development office and staff whose function is to try find private-sector donors for any or all of the above.

Have I left anything out?  I’m sure I have.

But let’s be clear – I do NOT pine for the good old days and I am NOT arguing against any of the above.  However, all of them cost money.  They need non-academic bureaucrats to efficiently run them.  If you’ve ever been associated with the professoriate, you will know that having professors be actually entirely in charge of overseeing and running these programs on a day-to-day basis would be a disaster.  You need great staff people!!!

In terms of “teaching”, colleges and universities haven’t changed all that much: Students come to class and professors lecture. It is everything else about the academic experience that has been added on, that has caused costs to rise.  And it is no surprise, therefore, that now non-academic staff outnumber actual professors.

This is the kicker.  Except for those few at the top of the new bureaucracies, the thousands of lower-level staff that do all the heavy lifting to keep universities functioning are generally grossly UNDERPAID!

I suspect if we actually paid our staff what they are worth, we’d have to raise our tuitions another 50%.

So I am all for Bernie Sanders and his call to vastly increase public financing of higher education.  But tuition-free or even the low costs that I was so fortunate to have?  Those days are gone, along with the universities of yesterday where teaching was the only expectation and duty.

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Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.


  1. April 18, 2016 at 5:24 am —

    But here’s the question:

    Apart from the sports program, college and university don’t work that different in Germany, but we’re still able to go with no to very low tuition. How can that be? If it is objective reasons such as needing better labs and computers (ok, we don’t have our own police forces on campus, though we have non-police security people) then it should not be possible at all.

    Seeing that it works in Germany (many students still have moderate amounts of debt because summer jobs usually don’t pay for 12 months of rent and food) it must therefore be possible.

    That is not to say our system is perfect, far from it, but it shows those days are only “gone” if people want them to stay gone.

  2. April 26, 2016 at 5:59 pm —

    I have never been to a German university but I have been to many universities in Europe and I must say that the scale is just vastly different when it comes to the kind of services–and accompanying bureaucracy–we see at universities in North America.

    Most NA universities are supporting large residential populations of students who are not from the area, which means that housing, student services (like gyms, dining, recreation) and lots of other things have had to come under the umbrella of the university in a way they haven’t in other places.

    On the one hand this sort of helps accessibility in the sense that there is a central organisation taking care of lots of things on students’ behalf, and they presumably have student interests at heart (this cuts down on things like irresponsible slumlords taking advantage of students).

    On the other hand it is fantastically expensive and not always especially efficient (dining plans for example often waste enormous amounts of food, which we wouldn’t see if students were buying groceries).

    • April 29, 2016 at 9:50 am —

      Not going to say student accommodation is perfect, but yes, we got that. Most students don’t come from the area either in most unis (well, except here, because we’Re really people reluctant to move), especially for high profile courses where places are assigned by a central authority.

      Student cafeteria? Check!

      Gym/Sports? Check!

      Here’s a list of the sports my former Uni offers


  3. April 27, 2016 at 5:01 pm —

    My memory may be faulty, but weren’t there a number of student demonstrations/riots in various European countries (France? Italy?) about rapidly rising university costs just in the last few years?  When you say that German students leave with moderate debt – that was probably the US situation 10-15 years ago.  Hopefully you aren’t merely on the way to where we are now!  Even in Canada…  In the mid to late 80’s I was a foreign PhD student in Vancouver.  I had a few fellowships, but was mostly a TA.  I lived a fun life (!) and still managed to actually save money.  I suspect that sounds like a fairy tale now.

    • April 29, 2016 at 10:01 am —

      Germany started to introduce moderate (500€ a term) fees, but most states have abandoned them together

  4. April 28, 2016 at 8:56 pm —

    Speaking of Canada, just in the time since I started my PhD things have changed a lot. My doctoral institution recently eliminated the programme that allowed foreign and out-of-province PhD students to pay local tuition (which makes an enormous difference), and has also cut many of the courses traditionally taught by graduate students. I was lucky to get pretty good funding for my whole degree through a combination of grants and teaching, but if I’d started only a few years later I almost certainly would have been stuck with thousands in debt instead. We can only hope the new government will try to address this somehow.

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