Why is College so Expensive?

American universities are among the best in the world, however, they are also among the most expensive. In this blog, I will go through a few of the expert opinions that offer an explanation to the constant increase of university prices. These expert opinions vary drastically with no single explanation that is unanimously agreed upon. The only objective truth is that tuition price has increased at a faster rate than both inflation and family income, making this a problem worth exploring.

The first group of experts argue that government aid has allowed universities to increase prices without facing consumer backlash. Since students are not having to pay out of pocket directly, because of government subsidies, they are less likely to react when prices aggressively increase. Furthermore, the lack of competition in non-profit universities has made faculty and administration less productive since they do not have to compete. This has led to an increased need for faculty hiring, while the productivity per faculty has decreased.

A second group of experts blame the problem on the university’s excessive spending habits. Such as spending million dollars on new buildings, amenities, and non-instructional staff. If you look at statistics for university hiring patterns, it is apparent that these institutions have decreased the number of professors they hire while increasing non-instructional staff such as counsels, athletic coordinators, lawyers… To account for the additional expenses, these universities started relying on part time instructors and graduate students to teach classes and save cost, however, the cost savings are not enough which led to the increase in tuition.

A third group of experts, particularly economists, argue that the cause is simply the economy. They assert that the service industries which involve highly educated people have seen a similar price increase to higher education. Notable examples include the price of dentists, lawyers, and doctors. They also argue that higher education suffers from an economic phenomenon called the “cost disease” where the service provided does not change through time, but the price of the service must increase due to the economy. Professors still stand in front of a class and teach, as they did decades ago, however, professors are highly educated people that can commend high salaries and thus even though their function did not change, their salaries have increased which has led to an increase in prices.

This is a very brief and simplified explanation of the most popular opinion regarding the increase in the price of higher education. The topic itself is very controversial and nuanced. However, I hope I was able to deliver a simplified glimpse into the problem.

Fixing the basics, the future of the university

When I came to Virginia tech to get my PhD, I was expecting to take courses of a much higher caliber than what I was used to in my undergraduate institution in Lebanon. To give credit where credit is due, I have taken really good courses taught  by exceptional professors. Unfortunately, I have also taken courses that are way worse than the worse course that I have taken in my undergrad. I am not going to directly address why these courses were so bad, however, I would like to point out that in my opinion the university’s lack of monitoring and tenure may be the two main culprits. Let me further explain, professors who already have tenure, or are along tenure track, are expected to teach, do research and get involved in service. The problem arises when a very good researcher is forced into teaching, even though this is not his strong suit. Another problem is when professors who want to teach are allowed to, even though they are not good at it. The result is a very bad educational experience for students who are caught in the cross fire.

So, what I would like to see in higher education is an increased emphasis on the quality of teaching. Might it be through more rigorous selection of qualified teachers or the separation of research and teaching. I am not suggesting that professors chose between either teaching or research, rather my suggestion is to at least keep teaching a choice for professors. If this leads most professors to pick research, fine, hire people who actually want, and can, teach. For the professors that actually chose to teach alongside their research, i would expect that the quality of their class is way better than a colleague that is forced. On the flip side, not every professor that wants to teach should be allowed to, a specialized department should evaluate the teaching skills of every professor in an effort to offer the best experience for students. At the end of the day, students are at the heart of every university and actions should be taken to preserve their best interest.

 

Technology, Give Me Back My Attention!!!!

When it comes to multitasking, I have always known that it is not a thing, at least not for me. When I want to focus on my work, I always prefer to be in a calm quiet space where I can concentrate. Working while having distractions such as music or tv are reserved for easy and boring tasks that do not require my full concentration. However, something that has recently plagued me is my inability to do nothing. Ironically, I find it hard to concentrate when reading long articles or when sitting in class, yet at every moment during my day I must pay attention to something. Let me clarify, as soon as I wake up, I find myself having breakfast while watching some random YouTube video. While on the bus heading to the university, I will be looking at social media and listening to music. Whenever I have free time from my work, I will be on some platform or randomly browsing the web for stuff I don’t need. It’s like I lost the ability to just sit, relax, and do nothing. Although at first glance this seems benign, this behavior is very weird and wasteful especially since I have basically no recollection of most of the stuff I go through.

Having read the first chapter of Clive Thompson’s “Smarter Than You Think” book. I definitely agree that working in tandem with technology has made us much more productive and smarter (Although his example of how humans team up with a machine to play better chess than the machine itself does not hold anymore these days). Personally, working in a field such as robotics, I could not manage without technology on my side, from browsing journals, to solving long equations, to creating complicated simulations …  In this context, technology is my best friend. However, technology has consumed all my attention, in both good and bad ways. So where should the line be drawn? Is centering one’s life around technology become the new standard of living? Or is it simply the case that I have a weak will power when it comes to restricting myself from using technology?

I am not completely sure whether this problem is unique to me or shared by others. If I were to guess, I am pretty sure a lot of people are going through the same thing. On this note, I would like to turn it over to you and hear our thoughts on this matter.