Regarding the cost of college in 2023…

Here you see Villa Jovis, the Capri getaway of Emperor Tiberius. No, wait: It’s Strom’s fitness center.

Doug brought up the subject, and Barry weighed in, and then I started to, but realized I had several different things to say about it, and might as well make it a separate post…

Here’s the relevant part of Doug’s comment:

University of South Carolina has announced a record number of freshman in the upcoming class. I wonder how many are taking student loans to attend? I wonder how many of those know how much their loans are and what the interest rate is? I wonder how many of them are smart enough to attend college but not be able to calculate what their future payments will be? I wonder how many of them are pursuing majors that will not pay a salary sufficient to support their loan payments in the future? I wonder how many of them will cry about how they were tricked into taking such confusing loans and that is “not fair” that they have to pay them back ten years from now and expect the government to cancel the debts they signed up for?

Barry responded by defending efforts by the Biden administration — and others — to relieve the considerable college debt burden out there.

Well, it’s a completely out-of-hand situation, this spiraling cost. I’m not sure where you apply the lever to fix it. But we can at least define the problem. Here’s a simply explanation of how much more college costs now, based only on my own experience. You may have your own examples…

You may recall that back in 2011, I shared with you a receipt for my tuition at Memphis State University for the spring semester of 1974.

It cost $174. OK, you people who are young enough to think of it as a long time ago will say, “But that was almost 50 years ago, ya geezer!” You know, inflation and all that. Well, let me dispense with that. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index calculator, what I paid then translates to $1,141.42 in 2023.

Think you could pay that with a check as I did (the check provided by my parents, of course)? Well, you certainly could if you’re one of those gazillions of kids driving around Columbia with the brand-new SUVs their parents sent them to college in. But suppose you couldn’t, and my guess is that many couldn’t. But they could get loans, and then likely pay those loans off in a very few years of working after graduation. You might gripe about making the payments, but it wouldn’t be an anvil strapped to your back for the rest of your life.

But what are students paying in 2023? Well, I suppose you can calculate it a number of ways, but USC puts out the number $12,688. More than 11 times what Memphis State cost me, adjusted for inflation. Mind you, that’s for South Carolina residents. For those kids driving new SUVs with out-of-state plates, it’s $34,934.

That’s just tuition and fees, of course. Room and board costs the S.C. resident another $16,324. What did it cost me at the dawn of antiquity? The check I wrote for my dorm and meal plan in fall 1973 was for $235. In the lamentable year of 2023, that would be $1,541.57. What kids will be paying as they arrive on campus over the next couple of weeks is, again, close to 11 times what I paid.

And mind you, this Memphis State dorm wasn’t one of those prison-cell-type arrangements like the Honeycombs, where I lived back in the fall of 1971. It was a private dorm just off campus. It was way, way nicer than most public dorms. It was a lot like Bates House when I was at USC. Bates was new then, and had the features that would become the new standard — the suite arrangement that meant two dorm rooms shared one bathroom, instead of the one barracks-style latrine per floor in the Honeycombs. The decor looked like you were in a Holiday Inn — which isn’t the Taj Mahal, but light years better than the cinder-block walls of the Honeycombs, where my roommate taught me (he was a junior, I a freshman) to dress over the light fixture of the room below ours, which made the cold tile floor slightly warmer to bare feet.

Anyway, back to the astronomical cost of higher education today. And mind you, we’re not talking here about the expensive schools

What causes it, and what can be done about it?

Well, I suppose part of it is that we live in a more materialistic society these days — or at least, one with greater material expectations. Take my earlier mention of all those cars that make it so hard to drive through that part of town when school is in session. I think I’ve told the anecdote before about my uncle in Bennettsville needing some new bags for his vacuum cleaner when I was at USC. The only place he knew where to get them in those pre-Amazon days was the K-Mart out at the end of Knox Abbott in Cayce — you know, the place that’s now a huge U-Haul facility. I was willing to go get them, but I needed transportation. My roommate John, who knew everybody, knew a guy on our floor who had a car (possibly the only guy who had a car). He set me up and the guy drove me out there, (which seems amazingly generous in retrospect — I suppose I paid for gas). Everywhere else I went, I walked — to the Winn-Dixie that was where Walgreen’s is now in Five Points, to the movies downtown, wherever. I never needed to go anywhere further. When I went to Bennettsville on weekends, I walked to the Greyhound station behind Tapp’s and took a bus.

None of this seemed a hardship then. I infer that those kids tying up traffic downtown today might disagree.

I didn’t have a meal plan, and neither did my friend Perry, who lived in a dorm that made the Honeycombs look palatial. He was in this old former frat house at the corner of Blossom and Sumter. Whenever I went to see him when it had rained recently, I would have to walk around or through puddles that covered much of the hallway. I’d go there every night to pick him up on my way, and we’d walk downtown to the S&S cafeteria, where I would splurge — sometimes, as I recall, my bill was well over $2.

But I digress. My point is that today, people — the kids and their parents — expect more, and their parents are ready to pay for it, sometimes to an astounding degree. Once you’ve looked at their cars, check out those private housing developments scattered all over town, the ones with their own regular buses that bring the residents to the Horseshoe to save them from having to (shudder) walk, or waste all that time trying to find a parking space.

And the university caters to these expectations. Just look around. Or if you don’t have time to roam, just look at the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center, and the elevated walkway to it from the student parking lots. You might easily cite your own examples.

Then you could get into salaries, or football ticket prices, or what have you. These places drip money, and kids want to have “the college experience,” which apparently involves a great deal more than learning.

Or to return to a favorite old hobbyhorse of my own, remember how the lottery was supposed to pay for college, but basically served as a huge price-support scheme for ever-higher tuition?

Which students pay, and if Mama and Daddy didn’t have the money handy, they pay off stupendous loans for the rest of their lives.

You know, when I said this was going to be too long for a comment, I wasn’t just thinking about what you see above. I had a couple of other points I was going to get into — such as the fact that it seems we hear more these days about sheer numbers of students in the freshman class, rather than their rising SAT scores, which used to be a treasured goal at USC.

But I’ll get to that another time…

My old roommate John peers out from our room in Snowden, just before the Honeycombs were torn down.

18 thoughts on “Regarding the cost of college in 2023…

  1. Sally Huguley

    After a weekend babysitting grandchildren, I hardly have enough gray cells to write this reply. However, here’s a few bullet points on this posting:
    — Student debt: In the aftermath of the 2008 housing crash, economists said one of the contributions to making a recovery was young people joining the work force/starting families, etc. who struggle with the high cost of college loans. The suggestion was to make changes that would lift the burden, thereby lifting the economy. No discussion of that any more. How come? Let’s face it. Student loans are a racke tand not due to a student’s lack of research or understanding. If you’re borrowing from the government, why aren’t the loans interest free or at the very least set up like fixed mortgages? Most student loans, handled by private entities, are like credit cards with compounding interest. Makes it hard to get ahead.
    — STEM education — Enough already! Everytime I hear STEM, I think what about students who are more interested in history, literature, art , music or any of the liberal arts? Not everyone has a proclivity or particular interest in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math (STEM), so why squeeze all young people’s talents through the same funnel? This curriculum is essentially the brainchild of chambers of commerce. The message is if it won’t develop a job, why major in history, philosophy, religion, economics, literature, French, music or art history? So much for C. Vann Woodward, Thomas Aquinas, Plato, Van Gogh, Bach, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Milton Friedman, and many, many other valuable geniuses, besides Einstein, Edison, Galileo ,Archimedes Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers. The narrowness of this education brainwashing resulted in the acronym STEAM. Throwing a bone to a dog, A for Art was added. Maybe we should drop the T since Big Tech is laying off so many workers.
    Plus, STEM emphasis has a direct link to college costs. Far, far more expensive to build a science, engineering, computer science state-of-the-art building than maintaining a library or a music school.
    — Overindulgence: Yes, I remember my dad writing the final check for my last semester at Duke — a little over $1,800. I lived in one of the oldest dorms on campus. Walked when I needed to get somewhere and relied on the college food plan. But that was part of the college experience then. Today, especially in S.C., colleges are underfunded by the legislature. Unless they have huge endowments and very rich alums, colleges rely on admitting more students (what’s the current percentage of USC’s out-of-state students? Used to be close to 50 percent). To attract students, colleges market apartment “dorms,” and other amenities that students expect and want. While pursuing my doctorate, one of the most satisfying sights was seeing a BMW with a sorority sticker and Florida tags being towed for failing to pay parking tickets.
    I could go on, but I’ve used up this afternoon’s supply of brain juice. However, might write some more later if Brad allows me the space. As you can tell, much of what I read on the subjects above, get under my skin as being very shortsighted. What did philosopher George Santayana write, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Thanks for your thoughtful response, Sally. Other people should be so low on gray cells.

      And thanks for mentioning possibly the greatest cause of the extreme rise in tuition, at state institutions, anyway — “colleges are underfunded by the legislature.”

      I’ve gone on about that many times in the past. It’s placed an astronomical burden on students, and turned college presidents into full-time fundraisers, hungry at all times for the big bucks.

      It’s not the full explanation for the problem, and in no way explains the big-ticket private schools costing $65,000 a year. But it’s an enormous part of the state higher ed cost problem.

      As for the STEM thing — I’d like to see more kids study more science. But I’d rather see more of them dedicated to learning how the world works, and most of all, learning about the fact that citizens have responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is to vote for people who consider education to be a core responsibility of state governments.

      Our tuition was cheap because state leaders believed in higher education. Today, far too many don’t believe anything is important beyond keeping taxes low…

  2. Doug Ross

    It’s pretty easy to track the increase in cost to the easy availability of loans. As long as students are willing to take on crushing debt to get a degree that offers little hope of paying back that debt, the demand will equal three supply.

    Deferred interest for for years helps then get into a further hole.. using loans for expensive apartments makes it worse. But we don’t want these kids to have to share a room or a bathroom.. that would be barbaric.

    Look at the bloated staffs at the universities as well. All manner of administration for every diversity interest.

    Joe did nothing to help. All he wants to do is give away tax dollars that aren’t covered with revenues. Easy way to buy votes.
    An actual solution would require fixing the problem not putting a trillion dollar band aid on the symptom.

    Also, you do know that the USC football team is self supporting and it’s revenue pays for basically all other athletics at the school, right?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, I do know that. I mean, about football.

      And I think we need to dump the whole mess.

      There was a good piece in the Post today, with the headline, “College football doesn’t need realignment. It needs to start over.

      I liked the first few grafs of it:

      It is now difficult not to recall the most audacious act by possibly the most immodest university president in history, Robert Maynard Hutchins. It isn’t because he terminated football at the University of Chicago during his reign there in the second quarter of the previous century. It is his reasoning for doing so.

      “The trouble with football,” Hutchins, a philosopher, declared to the press in 1938, “is the money that is in it.” Hutchins went on to write in the Saturday Evening Post, “Athleticism is not athletics or physical education, but sports promotion, and it is carried on for the monetary profit of the colleges through the entertainment of the public.”

      He then so convinced his board of football’s misalignment with the mission of higher education that it agreed to realign the football team — the Maroons, once coached by the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg — right off the campus. That is something I’ve argued for years should be pursued by every college in what we call the Power Five conferences, which in the blink of an eye are disintegrating and reorganizing in different forms….

      When I worked in Wichita, Wichita State dropped football. So it can be done…

      1. Doug Ross

        Can be done but the majority of people don’t want that.

        Tell all the members of the USC women’s sports teams to pack it in and go home if football goes away.

        Luckily, you have no shot of ever seeing that happen.

          1. Doug Ross

            How about a deal? Give us legal pot and online sports gambling in SC, and in return you can take 50% of the tax revenue and divide it among all the SC resident college students each year? No new taxes required. Add it on to of Life scholarship money and current funding. Free money..

            Colorado, a state with similar population as SC, generated about $400 million from pot and gaming taxes last year. How much would 200 million help?

            What’s your solution to increase school funding?

              1. Doug Ross

                Because there are other places the funding could go. Like reducing the income tax rates or creating new vocational schools to help those kids who have no interest in college or addressing the homeless issues..

                This is how a libertarian thinks.. solutions that aren’t tied to politics or trying to enforce ones morals on another person.

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Well, to me, “reducing the income tax rates” constitutes forcing libertarian morals on the rest of us.

                  If, of course, you stretch the word “moral” to the breaking point…

                  1. Doug Ross

                    Allowing people to pay less taxes is somehow a morality issue for you… Not surprising. You’ve been consistently in favor of everyone else pain I for what you want for decades.

                    Nice to see you deflect from answering a simple question: would you trade legal pot and online gambling in SC if it paid more to fund colleges?

                    If not, what’s your solution? Where will you get the revenue from? Be specific..

                    1. Brad Warthen Post author

                      It’s a silly question.

                      I’d make like places that aren’t allergic to taxes. That’s actually one of the things I like about reading the Boston Globe. They have a lot of problems up there, but at least the voters are more like grownups, and have a greater tendency to at least TRY to deal with the challenges that face them as a community…

                    2. Doug Ross

                      You do know that Massachusetts has been known as Taxachusetts since I was a child growing up there? If what you want for SC is to. increase income, sales, and property taxes to the same levels as Massachusetts, just say so.

                      I’m sure home owners here would love to see their property taxes doubled or tripled.

                      I lived there for 30 years and worked for a Boston based company from 2015-2022. Massachusetts takes an extra tax to pay for family leave out of every dollar you earn . But then when you try to collect, as a friend who had a baby did, they made the process so difficult and convoluted that she endef up only getting $100 a week. They’re great on the lip service for these programs.. actual benefits, not so much.

                    3. Brad Warthen Post author

                      I didn’t realize you were from what the Tappert Brothers called “MA.”

                      Maybe you told us and I forgot.

                      Anyway — in case no one has noticed — you and I like and dislike different things. You know what would keep ME from moving there (I mean, aside from the fact that I wouldn’t leave my home and family)?

                      It was a story in the Globe the other day that said the median home price in the city is $910,000. You’d object to paying the taxes on it, but I’d be more worried about the base price…

  3. Ken

    “…democratic life cannot survive an uneducated public in contemporary times. Put the other way around, neither political life nor education can be democratized alone. And anti-democratic forces shaping both are mutually reinforcing as well, forming a downward spiral.
    “Erosion of access and erosion of quality in public higher education and denigration of the value of higher education apart from job training are among the most underappreciated strategies of the combined neo-liberal and right-wing assault on democracy in the past four decades. At the same time, the combination of academic specialization and professionalization, the steady replacement of public with private research support, and neo-liberal pressures for economic deliverables from research and teaching, together these have diverted a great deal of university research and teaching from public worldly purposes exactly when we need the opposite turn.”
    Wendy Brown: Politics and Knowledge in Nihilistic Times

    1. Doug Ross

      The uneducated public is in the public schools grade K-12. Illiterate kids are passed on through the system and are in no position to even go to college. These are a large segment of the voters in SC. They are unfixable.

  4. Ralph Hightower

    What a coincidence. I started USC in 1971, and was in Bates House.
    I had a ’66 Chevy El Camino through college. One day, I drove to the Russell House and walked back, which was probably a good idea. When I walked to campus, my El Camino was in the parking lot with several tickets on it.

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