If high tuition is “normal”, then “normal” sucks

In the wake last night’s flap at Baruch College, I saw a number of tweets in my “CUNY” search column that expressed a sentiment like the following: “CUNY students are complaining about a $300 tuition increase? They’re spoiled – $300 is nothing, and CUNY tuition is already a bargain.” (Several were less politely phrased than this.)

It’s true that, compared to the cost of private schools – and maybe even other public institutions, I’m not sure – CUNY is pretty cheap. But it’s unwarranted to leap from the observation that CUNY tuition is relatively less expensive to the judgment that CUNY students have nothing to complain about.

The first reason is that, for many students in CUNY’s target demographic, $300/year is a significant amount of money. When you consider that the $300 hike is slated to happen once per year for the next five years, it becomes less controvertible that the increase is significant. A student in her first year at a four-year CUNY school will pay an additional $1,800 over her next three years, an increase of about 11% over what her tuition would be at current rates. (The percentage is higher at community colleges.) Even if you know nothing about CUNY students, there’s no question that an 11% (or higher) increase is something worth getting upset about.

And there’s something more insidious lurking behind the “they’re spoiled” sentiments: the idea that the insane costs of higher education are somehow “normal”, or even “the way things ought to be”. Charts like this one (assembled here from Consumer Price Index data) suggest that tuition increases have outpaced inflation by about two to one in the past decade or so. Unless wages have also outpaced inflation in this way (which, ahem, I doubt they have), it means that college tuition is, in some objective sense, a greater proportion of income than it used to be. Why should this seem right? Is higher education is a privilege that should be available only to people with financial means? In what way is income a meaningful indicator of who should be able to go to college?

Look at it another way. If the “CUNY students are spoiled” comments comes from people who are pissed off about the fact that they pay far more for their private schools – if it’s sour grapes – then it’s downright idiotic. People paying outrageous tuition to private schools, scraping by only by recourse to enormous student loans, should be right alongside of CUNY students, fighting the cultural sentiment that allows their $40K tuition to seem somehow acceptable. I fall into this category myself. My student loan debt is staggering. My wife and I make good money, and pay off large amounts of principle on our loans every month – but still we’ll be 40 before they’re paid off. If this is normal, then “normal” is something that we should all be resisting.

4 thoughts on “If high tuition is “normal”, then “normal” sucks

  1. Boone Gorges Post author

    One more point I forgot to add. It’s possible that a college education has been historically undervalued (or, conversely, that the real costs of education have risen unusually), so that higher tuition is necessary to make the system keep running. If this is true, it needs argument. And, moreover, it needs some analysis – to what extent should we, as a society, be willing to absorb some of the additional costs ourselves, and to what extent should they be loaded onto public school students themselves?

    1. KF

      …to what extent should we, as a society, be willing to absorb some of the additional costs ourselves, and to what extent should they be loaded onto public school students themselves?

      This is the $64,000 question, so to speak, and it doesn’t have a happy answer. The problem is less that the costs of higher education have risen so precipitously than that those costs were in fact historically considered a public responsibility, and thus public funding for higher education kept the cost to the individual student low. As tax refusenikism has risen at both the federal and the state level, those costs have been dramatically shifted from being considered a public responsibility to being assumed to be a private one. Beginning to correct the problems in funding higher education just aren’t going to succeed until we as a society remember that we must be responsible for something larger than ourselves.

      And, not incidentally, this is where I think that the Occupy movement has had the greatest potential effect: by shifting focus from what seems to be a problem faced by some other group (the working class, for instance, of which all we upwardly mobile white collar types are clearly not a part) to the issues faced by all of the 99%, they present the possibility for building real solidarity, and for articulating the ways that individualism fails everybody except the 1%.

      1. Boone Gorges Post author

        Thanks for your thoughts, Kathleen.

        I agree with your identification of the $64,000 question (would that it were actually this cheap to solve…). I guess my takeaway as far as this post is concerned is that underlying the “CUNY is cheap, so stop bitching about it” sentiment seems already to have made up its mind on the root question. That is, when you say that, essentially, CUNY *should* be more expensive for students, you’re tacitly (or maybe not so tacitly) saying that society should have a smaller role in providing higher education to everyone who wants and deserves it. The frustrating part about this glossing-over is that the assumption that is left tacit is the one we should really be having a serious discussion about, since that’s where the real moral import lies.


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