How Much Is Too Much for College?
An up-to-date cost comparison (and critique) of US private, US public state, Canadian, UK, and Irish undergraduate degrees
At what point do we decide that a college education isn’t worth the cost? Prior to becoming the father of a soon-to-graduate high schooler, my only experience of contemporary college admissions culture occurred when one of my books was copied without my permission and used as the basis for multiple choice questions on the Advanced Placement English exam.
No wonder some now call the American private university “a hedge fund with a side gig in education.”
Now I find myself suddenly deep in the weeds and flabbergasted by the figures. Any number of college counsellors will present the numbers in different ways. But if you simply take the time to punch in the estimates from the websites of the actual colleges and line them up next to one another you immediately see profound differences in cost.
What stands out is the exorbitant price of US private colleges. Unchecked, the cost of a bachelor’s degree from a non-state US university will likely be half a million dollars by the end of the decade. You could argue that this is just inflation doing its thing. But if you go back and calculate what college cost say, 30 years ago, when I attended, you’ll see that college and inflation parted ways long ago. The per year cost of my undergraduate degree (Brown University tuition, room and board), back in 1990 was $20,720 per year. In 2022 dollars that’s $47,053.27. But the actual cost of Brown today, all in, according to the University Bursar’s office is $83,683. Nearly double what it was in real, inflation-adjusted dollars.
What gives here? Why are American private universities so much more expensive than they were? Why are they more than double the cost of their in-state public or foreign counterparts? Is it simply that the value of a degree from an American private college has risen so much that it’s worth the sacrifice?