Alumnus says demand drives up college costs

Amy Hamblin

What if the cost of college wasn’t really $40,000 per year?

Northwestern alumnus and well-known economist Richard Vedder claims that the price of a college education is not being driven up by inflation, but instead by people’s willingness to pay almost anything for a college degree.

“There are very few checks and little accountability (within colleges),” said Vedder, who served as an economist on the Congressional Joint Economic Committee. “There is little incentive to be efficient.”

His new book, “Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much,” published this summer, explores why universities don’t feel bound to compete financially with each other. The ballooning cost of college has exceeded the inflation rate for the past 20 years, said Vedder, Weinberg ’62.

“When I entered Northwestern, it took an average family two months to pay (the tuition) and now it takes that family six months,” said Vedder, who teaches economics at Ohio University. “It’s becoming a greater burden.”

He noted greater accessibility to colleges has spurred demand. People also value a college education more because of the growing difference in income between those with high school and college degrees.

But for some parents, a child’s future salary isn’t the only reason college is worth the price. John Burchfield, the father of an Education freshman, said he doesn’t believe Vedder’s claim that colleges are overcharging their students.

“Going to college is an opportunity to reach your full potential,” said Burchfield, of Sugar Land, Texas. “When individuals improve themselves, they ultimately improve society.”

Colleges require larger budgets because students today expect more than just academics from the college experience, Vedder said. The additional money gleaned from tuition hikes often funds athletics and other student services.

Vedder stressed that athletics drain a lot of tuition money, especially during a losing season, and ticket sales don’t subsidize the program costs.

“(Athletics are) an expensive distraction,” he said. “It’s straying rather far from the mission of schools.”

Vedder also said graduate programs and research raise the price and diminish the quality of undergraduate education. The pressure to publish new findings means many professors lose sight of the reason they teach in favor of pursuing original research.

Scientific research sometimes is profitable, Vedder believes, but research within the humanities loses money. He suggests that universities increase the number of classes professors teach and take some of the emphasis off research.

Medill graduate student Lorie Konish said she remembered Medill Dean Loren Ghiglione estimating that the graduate journalism program costs about twice as much to fund as the undergraduate program. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of graduate programs.

“More publicity is given to graduate school programs because of their findings and research,” said Konish, adding that this can improve NU’s name recognition and encourage more students to apply to undergraduate programs.

According to Vedder such benefits don’t always exceed the cost. The NU graduate knows firsthand the “financial burden” placed upon parents of undergraduates.

“I sent one of my children (to NU) and paid the full price,” Vedder said. “It was like having a root canal for four years.”

Reach Amy Hamblin at [email protected].