The news media has reported that more and more students are priced out of college or going deep in debt to pay for it, diminishing their prospects for the rest of their lives. Higher education debts have been blamed for constricted career choices and deferred homeownership, marriage and parenting. Based on that reporting, the story I had prepared to tell was that soaring tuition at private colleges may be explained by an arms race for extraneous amenities, extra administrators and increasingly cosseted faculty. But in public higher education, which accounted for 73.1% of higher education enrollment in 2012, cutbacks in taxpayer subsidies are the greater factor.
This is the story told by the public colleges and universities themselves. According to a recent report from Demos cited here,
“Cuts to higher education funding by state governments accounted for 79% of tuition increases at public research universities between 2001 and 2011 and 78% of the growth in college costs at public bachelor’s and master’s universities.” “Some have argued that universities’ penchant for hiring more administrators and constructing more buildings are the primary culprits behind skyrocketing tuition” according to this source. “While this so-called administrative bloat is an issue worth some attention, the report argues that it hasn’t played as large a role in tuition hikes as state funding cuts or the rising cost of health care for university employees.”
The data is a bit more complicated.