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Why is College Tuition So High?

Explosion of “Support Services” Breaks the Budget

We hear it all the time during the Democratic debates. College tuition is too high; students are burdened with overwhelming debt; and state support is lacking. This is all true. Having taught at the university level for about 40 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason for the high level of tuition, and increasingly costly student fees that can almost double the tuition, is the increase in non-academic support services.

The Community College Research Center at Columbia University defines non-academic support services as “activities and programs that are designed to encourage academic success but that do not deal directly with academic content. They include formally structured programs—such as student success courses—and one-on-one services, such as academic, career, and financial aid advising.”

This all sounds fine and I don’t doubt its value. Support for financial need, developing one’s career options and strengthening success rate have benefits for the students and colleges. Where I do have a problem is the plethora of other support services that have become so fractured that they seem to deal with every conceivable issue and grow each year.

The following is taken from the websites of three different campuses of the California State University. I am not identifying them by name to avoid embarrassment.

One California State University has a Center for Leadership. On the website its mission is described as to promote “socially responsible leadership development through high-impact practices, programs and events that are innovative, inclusive and educational.”

My problem with having such a center is it implies leadership is not a function of each academic course, which is where it should be integrated into the curriculum. Instead, leadership is treated as an external skill that needs to be developed by setting up a dedicated office, which means hiring a director and staffing it -- a costly endeavor.

These centers should be folded into specific academic programs and become part of the mission of each program. There is no reason to hire more people to help. At best, the program can be run with no additional cost. At worst, a professor can be charged with running the center, with secretarial help, and receive one-course released time each year.

Another Cal State campus has a Diversity Initiatives and Resource Center. Its mission is: “Empowers, educates and engages students and the community through co-curricular learning and support for students to expand the cultural, competence and identity development.”

Putting aside the issue of a confusing description, there is no doubt that a need exists for diversity and inclusivity studies in college but the question is: Why not do it in basic liberal arts courses that all students take? Wouldn’t it be better to engage them in a psychology or sociology course?

I was shocked to find out that this university, the largest state-supported public university in the U.S., has five dedicated resource activities under the umbrella of the Center: African-American Resource Center, Asian Pacific-American Resource Center, Chicana-Chicano Resource Center, LGBT Queer Resource Center and Dreamers Resource Center. It makes no sense, and is fiscally irresponsible, to set up a dedicated activity whenever a group wants greater support for its beliefs.

The last example lists a variety of student support services including: College Success Program, Step to College,  Division of Equity and Community Inclusion, Health Promotion and Wellness, Literary, Performing, Visual and Media Arts and Special Enrollment Services. Student success

It sounds to me like College Success and Step to College could be combined. Moreover, the impression one gets from these types of centers is students can’t function on their own. They need to learn how to be successful, enhance wellness, become literary and so on.

They shouldn’t be in college if they need help developing these skills. It should be done in high school. Maybe that’s the problem. Our K-12 schools may be serving more as a babysitter than developing the analytical reasoning skills for students to figure out these things on their own. After all, we all learn and grow by doing.

I’ve often thought that today’s high school is yesterday’s middle school and today’s college is yesterday’s high school, especially with respect to developing emotional coping skills. Once we leave it to the schools to develop the skills that parents should be doing, we wind up with the college activities I describe above and increased cost of higher education.

For many years, the conventional wisdom was that the high cost of college is due to higher faculty salaries, and especially administrative salaries, and, no doubt, waste in programs. Administrative positions should be combined to save money and lower or keep tuition steady.

Faculty salaries are too high especially in high-powered research institutions that may pay $250,000 and more. What’s worse, these faculty may not even teach one course a year. They are too busy worrying about “publish or perish” and bringing in grant money for the university,

Increasingly, colleges and universities are turning to part-timers to teach the courses other faculty either don’t want to or are given released time from. These part-time lecturers tend to be underpaid and overworked. In some cases, it could be said that students are being cheated from being exposed to the most experienced and academically qualified professionals to teach their courses.

My recommendation is for state legislators to look at these issues and use their influence to consolidate non-academic support services including dedicated centers of activity. My guess is hundreds of thousands of dollars could be saved each year; tuition could then be frozen for at least four or five years.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 3, 2020. Dr. Mintz's Ethics Sage blog was recognized as one the top 100 in philosophy (#23) by Feedspot ( He recently published a book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior, that is available on Amazon. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website: Follow him on Facebook at: