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.
 Data here. Since 1997, the tuition increase for in-state students is 100% in inflation-adjusted dollars; older data here.
 I haven’t looked for really good references on this. See e.g. this and this.
A Thompson’s gazelle, drawn and painted from a photo in this.
7 thoughts on “How I learned to stop worrying and love tuition increases. (Not really.)”
Great question. I don’t know the answer either, so instead I’ll toss out a couple other possible possible reasons:
* No obvious villain. Some students might blame the university, some might blame the state government, so blame (and therefore protest energies) could be divided. And in both cases, we are talking about a big diffuse institution, not a single identifiable individual that is easy to ascribe agency (villainy?) to.
* Politics. Students, especially with a more economic-libertarian political bent, might not agree with subsidizing in-state students’ tuition (and in-state tuition is where the biggest percentage increases are, at least in the present round of hikes at UO).
* Pluralistic ignorance about who is harmed. Sort of an offshoot of your #1. Well-off politically liberal students who might normally be inclined to protest on behalf of disadvantaged groups might assume that most everybody else at UO is like them (i.e., well off too), and therefore not see a tuition protest as needed.
That’s what popped into my head, I have no idea if any of these are right. Overall though I agree with your larger point, the lack of large-scale protest is noteworthy and not obvious.
Great points. I especially like your “No obvious villain,” which I hadn’t thought about. This probably applies to a lot of complex problems!
I know that at Oakland University, a few decades ago we obtained most of our funding from the state, with tuition representing a minor contribution. Now, we are 80% tuition funded, with only 20% from the state. Thus, raising tuition has become our only way to keep up with increasing costs. So, one could say such tuition increases reflect the privatization of public schools.
This is true at UO also, though even more severely. Depending on how it’s counted, between 5 and 12 % of our funds come from the state. (The state’s funding amounts to 5% of our total operating costs, but I think it’s 12% or so if one considers only non-research costs.) This is amazing, but it’s not new; costs are rising by more than can be accounted for by the drop in state support. (Similarly, tuition costs at private universities have also been soaring.)
Interestingly, OSU students protested the board of trustees vote on a 4% in-state/ 2% out-of-state tuition increase to the point where they had to postpone the vote to a later date (http://registerguard.com/rg/news/local/35401265-75/oregon-state-tuition-hike-vote-postponed-because-of-protesters.html.csp). This seems to support your first argument that median family income has a big say in student resistance to tuition hikes, as the OSU family median income is ~$21,000 less than UO (same link as above).
I saw that in yesterdays’s paper — interesting! The article didn’t say how many students protested, unfortunately, but it’s worth noting that the amount of their tuition hike is less than UO’s. Perhaps it will inspire students here?!
There is actually a simple answer: Complaining ineffectively -knowing something is wrong and saying so to whoever will listen (good luck with that)- is easy but gets no results. Complaining effectively -locating the person/people who can do something and then crafting an argument or organizing a movement that will cause them to act- is time consuming and hard work. Most students have plenty of other, more quickly rewarding, challenges demanding their attention.