The University of Oregon (UO) recently announced that it will increase undergraduate tuition by about $1000 per year, from $10,762 to $11,707 for in state students and $33,442 to $34,387 for out-of-state students. This isn’t an aberration: as is the case that most US universities, tuition has skyrocketed over the last decade or two. Here’s the graph for UO, not including next year’s increase; note that the green curve is adjusted for inflation:
In just 10 years, tuition has increased by 45% in real dollars ! This is well known but nonetheless stunning.
Perhaps more stunning: No one cares.
At a superficial level, everyone cares. UO’s announcement made the front page of the local newspaper. Students I’ve talked to are upset. Everyone notes their displeasure.
But: in 10 years of teaching at UO how many large protests about tuition have I seen? Zero. The number of small protests isn’t zero, but it’s only a few – an occasional room full of students protesting at, for example, the meetings of UO’s governing board. (Yesterday’s board meeting featured “about 40” angry students, from a student body of about 24,000.) I have yet to see thousand of students picketing outside the administration building, disrupting a football game, or doing anything else major. Why not? I don’t know, but I’m puzzled enough about this to write down some thoughts.
I’ll first point out that I’m not asking the more common question of why these tuition increases occur. This is an important question, with many factors contributing to its answer.
So why isn’t there more intense unrest about large and incessant tuition increases? Here are some possibilities:
1 Students (at least at UO) are richer than one might think. Maybe because I meet a lot of students from poor backgrounds – high school students through outreach activities and UO undergraduates through a variety of interactions in class and in the lab – I was surprised to learn that the median family income for UO students is $126,400 [link]. For contrast, the U.S. median household income is about $50,000. So perhaps (many) students and their families are rich enough not to care. Here’s the U.S. income distribution, by the way:
2 Resistance is (perceived as) futile. Students don’t think that anyone will listen to their protests. This is a fair point. The “perceived as” is important — I would claim that this has never been tested with protests that are large enough or disruptive enough to the university’s public “brand.”
3 Resistance is hard to coordinate. In many cases students’ parents shoulder the bill, and they are scattered across cities, states, and even countries making it especially hard to coordinate any discontent. Similarly, tuition increases at UO are similar to those at other universities, so making an impact might require coordination of angry people across multiple schools.
4 College pays off, despite its cost. On average, people with a college degree earn more than those with just a high school education by a large enough amount to offset high tuition costs. The counter-argument to this is that it’s largely true not because of the intellectual benefits of a college education but because we’ve become a society that demands a college degree for many vocations that didn’t previously call for one. The low pay of non-college-graduates, from this perspective, is not due to their lack of a college education, but because their lack of college signals a deficiency in “character” or background that they are penalized for.
5 Price increases are a fact of modern life. Costs of health care primary education, and more have all increased dramatically in recent years, for reasons that aren’t clear. (See here and here for nice essays on this.) As mentioned, I won’t go into reasons for this, but two things they have been passing through my mind are (1) costs of “basic” things like food and clothing have dramatically declined over the past century; we’ve got to spend money on something, so costs expand to soak up our excess. (2) A commonality of all of these cost increases is rising labor costs, due both to the employment of more people (e.g. the huge increase in nonteaching and nonresearch personnel at universities) and to the increased cost of health and retirement benefits (both huge at UO).
6 Price discrimination! This, to me, is the most mysterious and most interesting factor. Thankfully, many students don’t pay the sticker price for tuition — universities offer financial aid in various forms, assisting lower income students . One could imagine our tuition hike leaving low income students unaffected. To what extent is this the case on at UO? I don’t know. (I’m not in charge here.) But, our president’s announcement noted that the price hike of about $1000 per student will fill in about $16 million of university’s $25 million per year deficit. There are 20,000 undergraduate students; let’s assume that number won’t drop. Will the difference between $20 million and $16 million mean that each undergrad will actually only pay $800 more than last year, or that 80% of the students will pay $1000 more and the poorest 20% will not suffer a tuition increase, or (realistically) that a graded scale in between these extremes will be applied? As mentioned, I don’t know, but the similarity between $16 million and $20 million strongly implies that the tuition costs will have real consequences for a lot of people.
As mentioned, this bothers me, whether or not it “should.” About a year ago, an excellent and hard working undergraduate I know was complaining about his several-hundred-student biology course, which was too large for the auditorium it was in, forcing him to attend videocast lectures in a “spillover” room. That’s not what he was complaining about. Quite often, it turned out, the audio or video didn’t even work properly, making it very difficult to follow the course, and the instructor didn’t seem to care. I encouraged him to organize other students and complain to the department. I don’t know what, if anything, happened. Perhaps one can make the argument that maximizing the money we extract from students and minimizing the educational experience we provide leads to a university that does the greatest good in some odd sense, putting this money towards especially noble goals. I don’t really believe it, though, and I don’t like it.
A Thompson’s gazelle, drawn and painted from a photo in this.