Education Supplement: Bursting the Tuition Bubble

The soaring cost of college has multiple causes and no easy solution

CUNY student protestors like to note, with bitter irony, that free tuition at CUNY was uncontroversial back when the student body was overwhelmingly white and working-class. "From 1845 to 1976, CUNY was free," says Borough of Manhattan Community College student leader Domingo Estevez, who says he was clubbed by police at the Baruch event. "The state basically has turned their back on CUNY once CUNY diversified."

Open admission for all graduates of city high schools started in 1970 after system-wide student protests. Tuition was first imposed after the fiscal crisis of 1975 and has kept rising since, even though nearly half of CUNY students now come from families with incomes under $30,000 a year.

It's numbers like these that lead to talk of a popping college bubble, but so far, there's no sign of impending collapse. National undergrad enrollment jumped by 2.8 million from 2007 through 2010, according to the College Board, with most of that growth at public schools. "As people say it gets more and more unaffordable, the fact is more and more people are affording it," Baum says.

CUNY students were spared cuts at the cost of hefty tuition hikes.
Paul Buckowski/Times Union
CUNY students were spared cuts at the cost of hefty tuition hikes.


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There are several factors at work, she says. Not only has the economy driven more people to return to school, but also, increases in Pell Grants and tuition tax credits—the latter of which, Baum notes, disproportionately aid more well-off students who have taxes to deduct against—have taken some of the sting out of tuition hikes.

Wellman, though, worries that schools like CUNY might already be pricing people out, even as enrollment continues to soar. One possible interpretation: Priced-out students might be getting replaced by other students who are trading down from pricier private schools to public universities in order to save cash.

Baum and Wellman both agree that the current pricing scheme is unsustainable. Still, they aren't sure where it will end—barring a return to state-funding levels of the past, something that seems unlikely even after Governor Cuomo's half-a-loaf restoration of millionaires' taxes. "As long as people are willing to pay those prices, then I'm not sure where the correction occurs," Wellman says.

The schools with the most to worry about could be those in the middle, with neither Ivy League cachet nor CUNY prices. "A few of them go out of business every year. I think more of them might go out of business," Baum says.

If so, the first bubble that bursts could be the very idea of college itself, with its quaint traditions like dorms, campuses, and professors. As more students find their college experience reduced to packing into increasingly crowded lecture halls, Baum predicts, "there's going to be more online, more hybrid learning. We're going to figure out more ways to teach large numbers of students. We have to."

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