Our Universities: Supply and Demand

Concerns that college costs are spiraling out of control are well placed.  However, painting institutions capable of garnering support for their mission as greedy, risks killing the incentive to improve is misguided.

Private wealth of a philanthropic sort is also part of the explanation for Berkeley’s gaining and then sustaining its excellence. … Pelfrey (p. 16) adds that, “until 1940, more than half of all the lands and buildings of the University were purchased as a result of donations from private sources.”

George W. Breslauer,  What Made Berkeley Great?   The Sources Of Berkeley’s Sustained Academic Excellence  January 2011


Annalyn Censky, in a CNN Money Watch piece, Surging College Costs Price out the Middle Class, envisions that soon only rich people will become educated, leaving the middle class to be plumbers, electricians, carpenters and mechanics.  I have never thought of craft workers as uneducated, but…

While this may be somewhat overstated, as a trend, it’s a fate we must address.

This conversation can become complex because of the different conceptualizations of what a university education represents.  We need to move past the idea that a particular vision of the university experience should be available to everyone regardless of ability, interest, commitment or aspiration.  But we must make sure that an affordable education is available to anyone who embodies these ideals.

Is a college degree a dying entitlement? According to the statistics in Censky’s piece income has been relatively flat since 1988, but the cost of an education has increased more than 120%, and while there are no figures for debt load in 1988, today the average undergraduate leaves with a burden of more than $23,000.  This level of financial commitment on the part of students would normally argue against the entitlement concept.  But we must understand the different roles a school plays.

These days, major universities do not just offer an education.  They offer a package of life experiences.  Residence halls, career services, access to alumni networks, entertainment (sporting or otherwise), all of these are marketed to students as part of the university product.

Different university prices are not solely representative of educational costs.  If you went to Disneyworld before the advent of day passes, you probably remember the books of tickets that you would have to buy to get on the individual rides.  “A” tickets were usually the less exciting kiddie rides, while “E” tickets were for the most popular exciting ones.  You could buy books that had different mixes of the tickets, and as a child, your goal was to talk your way into a book with more than one or two “E” tickets.

An interesting thing happened, though.  Corporate sponsors opened up a few branded rides that were among the best in the park . . . and they didn’t require tickets. The costs of those rides were subsidized, so you could pay for an “E” ticket for Space Mountain or you could ride the Mission to Mars without a ticket, which many found to be a more enjoyable ride.

Universities build endowments to enrich their offerings where possible, whether subsidizing sports, scholarships, and other activities. Lately, it seems, some of those that have been successful in building endowment are demonized for being greedy.

But when did success become Greed? States should relieve public universities of burdensome regulation and bureaucratic report writing for being successful in securing private support.  Give institutions room to find a niche, rather than shoehorning all into one mold.

Universities without alumni support or catchment for athletic ticket sales should not try to mount campaigns to draw more students with “frills”.  We must value separately the education and the lifestyle aspects of the university based on the needs of state and student.  If money is an object, forego football, beanies, fraternities, raccoon coats, sports cars, Nikes, or dances.  No frills.  Offer an “E” ticket level education or an endowment subsidized ride, with access to a few “A” and “B” tickets for lifestyle choices

The price of an education is not the problem. There are outstanding educations that are highly subsidized in both the public and private sectors.

The cost of a “traditional” college lifestyle is another matter.  In the university marketplace, we should not disparage any schools that find creative ways to fund and provide different types of university experiences in response to demand.


One thought on “Our Universities: Supply and Demand

  1. So, doesn’t it still come down to, at least in part, as to where the money goes? Rather than tapping private sources for “football stadiums, beanies, administrative installations, and large concrete Saluki dogs”, tap these private sources for funds to support more and better faculty and staff, repairs to teaching facilities, and upgrades to teaching facilities.

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