The villain of higher education is higher education

When speaking to a group of University of Utah students in DC a couple years ago, I had the chance to teach them probably the only conservative idea they’d heard their whole college career.

One student was caught in an insurance donut hole: he was too old to be on his parents’ insurance, but he couldn’t get his own insurance from work because he was still in college. He was angry with Utah’s Republican members for not being sympathetic about this in their policies.

“They screwed me over!” he said.

“Hold on a second,” I responded. “Let’s talk about who’s really screwed you over.”

The reason that he, at 26, was still in school was because school was too expensive for him to just plow through. He’d had to take a couple years off to save up money, which delayed him graduating and getting his own insurance. And the people who had made his tuition unaffordable were not, alas, the Utah delegation.

The cost of higher education has been so insanely out of control for so long that I’m not even going to insert a hyperlink into that statement. The stated explanation some schools give is that “deep budget cuts in state funding for public higher education and shrinking subsidies at private schools have pushed a greater share of the cost onto students and their families.”

Which is, of course, utter hogwash.

The reason colleges raise their prices so much every year is because they can. The cost of educating students does not get more expensive year after year, but with Uncle Sam financing the expense, greedy college administrators can jack up prices beyond the ability of students to pay. Government intervention in higher education has screwed over the people it was supposed to help.

This is one of the problems of any third-party payer system: the person paying isn’t really the person paying. Students are not a college’s customer, they are its product.

My young friend paused thoughtfully.

Truthfully, I didn’t go into this level of detail, but I explained the economics and blamed them on overpaid administrators and the “higher education industrial complex.” I was a little worried about what the teachers accompanying them might say in the face of my rhetoric, but when I made the comment “the cost of educating you does not rise by 10% every year,” one of the teachers chimed “They aren’t paying us 10% more every year.”

College administrators are sort of a modern day, dystopic Robin Hood. Instead of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, they rob from the poor and … just keep to themselves: mainly to treat university presidents like CEOs.  

For example, private university presidents’ salaries rose 8.6% between 2013 and 2014, with 39 making more than $1 million. That year, Wilmington University President Jack P. Varsalona walked away $5.4 million of his students’ money. (Note that’s just salary. University presidents usually get benefits like in-house cooks and an on-campus mansion.)

But hey, public university presidents are probably more responsible, right?

Again: hogwash. Public university leaders made $464,000 on average last calendar year, while the best paid public university president was ASU’s Michael Crow, with a mere $1.5 million. This money comes from “quasi-endowments” and “donor gifts.” So those donations are not helping the students’ education.

Other problems extant to higher education get a lot more attention, like thought suppression and lack of ideological diversity, but the biggest problem is the distorted economics. When people start shouting “Education should be free for all!!!!!!!!!!” (in between telling you how much you hate everyone/thing), they miss that education should be affordable and making it “free” will only make it more expensive – because someone will still have to pay for it.

Just in the case of “free” college, it’s the taxpayer who will get screwed over.