Education is one of many things the Left relentlessly asserts is a “basic human right,” not realizing that anything that requires the labor of another human being is not a “basic human right.” That being said, the pursuit of higher education is certainly worthwhile, but it is becoming more costly every year because of the misguided notion that education is a “basic human right.” But of course, human rights to the Left are not organic unless guaranteed by coercive government mandate, because what’s more natural than that? In truth, whenever government involves itself in any aspect of any industry, it almost certainly complicates and impairs what could be an efficient and mutually beneficial outcome to the consenting parties involved in the transaction. Education is one of the many industries that the government’s unnecessary over-reach disenfranchises both affluent and destitute Americans of an affordable, high quality education.
The reality is that higher education is a commodity and like other commodities, comparable to a coffee bean or an iPhone, it can be sold and therefore has a price. That is why a professor has a job and earns a salary for doing their job. To expand on this thought, universities are businesses, as are coffee shops and the Apple store, and just like those businesses, the products (eg world-class professors, athletic facilities, etc.) that a university markets and sells are subject to the law of supply and demand which means that the more people want something, the more expensive it becomes.
An example of the supply and demand of knowledge can be seen when looking at the history of rising costs of public and private universities. During the year 1996, a year of private university tuition cost $19,117 on average. In 2016, average tuition increased to $32,405 (a 70 percent increase). Similarly, a year of public university tuition cost $4,399 in 1996, and increased to $9,410 by 2016 (about a 114 percent increase). Around the same time, inflation increased 53%, meaning the cost of a public school rose twice as fast as inflation. Are college students today 114 percent better educated than college graduates two decades ago? Doubtful, and yet today’s students pay tuition as if they are. The prevailing thought is that it is students and their parents that continue to pay for universities, both public and private. But in reality, it is the students, their parents, and government loans that pay. In 2000, 32% of students received a federal government loan, with an average loan amount of $2,486. In 2014, that rose to about 45% of students with an average loan of $4,531.
Just as other businesses and industries have shortages, or limited supplies, a university will have a limited number of spaces. So as more students go to universities seeking education(buying knowledge as it were), universities will respond by increasing the amount of money it takes to be given that education (selling knowledge).
Federal aid “awards” (loans) have kept pace with rising enrollment figures. Due to that, the federal government has caused students and their parents to greatly neglect the rising cost of tuition. So federal loans create the illusion that instead of a student or parent having to pay 114% more for college today, they only appear to have to pay 33% more for college, a relatively modest expense for “future job prospects.” But this is nonsense because, the economic reality of this scenario is that nothing prevents the price from going up and so the federal government, in conjunction with state governments, distort the personal cost-benefit analysis of college. So in essence, students and parents are inadvertently kept from acknowledging the real cost of college and never have to acknowledge the substantial choices that are necessary to make an even more beneficial financial decision. It is safe to say that the government is enabling and encouraging poor decisions. The law of supply and demand cannot be suspended, no matter how the Left wishes it could be. For example, the price of a cup of coffee is only kept in check by the people’s willingness to pay the amount. So if Starbucks began to sell a tall cup of coffee for $5.90, fewer people will buy that coffee and so Starbucks will have to drop the price to $2.95 in order to compensate for the demand. The equivalent should be accurate for college, yet it is not. This is because the government makes it look as if that “tall cup of coffee” is only $2.95, rather than $5.90.
The only real way to reduce the cost of college is for the federal government and public academic institutions to stop misleading students and parents about costs. Only if the real costs are made more transparent will families be able to make good decisions about whether college is worth it, but it is difficult to create transparency when the federal government sustains a system that undermines it.