In my freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) in 1977-78, tuition, fees, room, board, and other expenses (textbooks, travel) came to about $7000 total. My father was a cloth cutter, and he made about $18,000 that year, which I would estimate as being about 45th percentile (that is, about 55% of all earners made more money than my father). My mother did not work outside the home at that time. Thus college expenses amounted to about 39% of our family’s income. Of course, we could not afford to pay that much, and I received generous scholarships and took out loans, without which I could have never attended Penn. Today, Penn costs about $65,000 per year total, and for that to be about 39% of your income, you’d need to earn about $167,000, which is at about 90th percentile for family income. My father’s profession does not really exist in the same form now as then, but even if it did, he’d be fortunate to earn $67,000! As tuition and other expenses increased at private universities, flagship public universities increased theirs to keep pace, and other public institutions were not far behind. Now, you can see the beginning of a price war among public institutions. For example, many non-flagship publics are lowering their non-resident tuition in a bid to attract more students in the face of challenging conditions for enrollment. I have strongly advocated this for Wayne State. At some point, the flagship publics will be forced to react, and this in turn will put pressure on the privates.
I predict that in 10-15 years, the difference between resident and non-resident tuition will have practically disappeared, and there will be more like a single “blended” tuition. Flagship publics will be more expensive for residents than they are now, and less expensive for non-residents. For example, in today’s prices (2015 dollars), I predict that the University of Michigan will have tuition of about $30,000 in 2025, still a great deal by comparison with the privates, but more expensive than now. Private university tuition will continue to rise, but not at the same rate as it has in the last 20 years.
During the Cold War, the United States and the former Soviet Union arrived at an equilibrium point in their military competition that was called “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD). This was (and still is) a situation where it was thought that neither country would start a nuclear war because it would result in the destruction of both sides (and much of the world), even if one or the other “won.” Just like its acronym, mutually assured destruction was quite a mad thing. In that same vein, I call today’s college application process “mutually assured rejection.” Universities want more students to apply, but entering classes have not expanded very much, resulting in a lower rate of acceptance. Some of the exclusive private universities have acceptance rates of less than 10%, which helps make them look good for beauty contests such as US News and World Report. An unintended consequence for these universities, however, is that their yield rates have been declining somewhat, so that more students are, in effect, rejecting them. Hence the term “mutually assured rejection.” I’m not convinced that private and flagship public universities have increased their access from this expansion of their applicant pools, and some studies indicate just the opposite.
I’ve had the good fortune to be part of several excellent universities around the world as a student, postdoc, and professor, and am very pleased with the higher education I received at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) for my BA and the University of Cambridge for my Ph.D, both in mathematics. As great as these institutions are, and as much as they have made a big difference in my life, I believe that Wayne State and other public institutions of access make a bigger difference in the lives of their students and alumni. Most of the people I have met through Penn exuded confidence that they were going to be successful, even if they were from modest backgrounds, as I was. What is different about the Wayne State alumni I have met is many say that they did not have such confidence upon matriculating, and they gained it over time. They often say, within 10 minutes of our introduction, that “if it were not for Wayne State, I would not be where I am today.” Their loyalty and generosity to the university is truly heartwarming.
Among industrialized countries, the US ranks very high in the percentage of adults 18-64 years old with a college degree, but among people born after 1980, we are middle of the pack and fading. We fare very poorly in the percentage of young people with college degrees whose parents do not. The exclusive private universities and flagship public universities do an excellent job of educating an elite class of students, but some have come to feel that these institutions have become “engines of inequality.” In my view, it is institutions like Wayne State that will move the needle in terms of changing this dynamic and increasing the percentage of young adults with college and graduate degrees. In pursuing this mission, we must be cognizant of changes in our students over time. For example, Wayne State alumni who graduated in the ‘50s and ‘60s had the benefit of excellent Detroit public schools. They may have been from modest economic circumstances, but the schools prepared them very well for college. For many reasons, this is not as true today, and many very able young people attend college with less than ideal preparation and struggle almost from the beginning. We must find better and more cost-effective ways to address these challenges than traditional remediation.