Skip to main content


On affording college: A need to better fund education in the U.S.

In 1975, the year I started college, my upper-middle-class parents sent me to an elite private university with a check for $5,000. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's consumer price index calculator, that would buy about $19,500 of higher education today.

Bruce Lewenstein

But an average public university costs about $14,000, and for private schools the average cost, according to the College Board, is about $24,000. For the kind of elite schools my parents sent me to -- including Cornell, where I've now been teaching for 20 years -- the annual cost is about $50,000 this year. (Believe me, I know: We finished writing checks for our boy No. 1 in June, but boy No. 2 just started in August. And the year he's done, boy No. 3 will start.)

In this context, I wonder about the recent spate of elite schools -- Harvard, Yale, Stanford and, yes, Cornell -- that have created programs to provide better financial aid even to middle-class families. Of course I'm glad that these schools are doing so. But are elite schools really the right place to focus?

When Yale introduced its program last year, its president, Richard Levin, noted, "When all is said and done, people are not going to be choosing between Yale and Harvard based on cost." But choosing between Yale and Harvard is not where the problem lies. Nor is it about the eight schools in the Ivy League, or even with the other 280 schools that grant doctoral degrees (which is about 6 percent of all colleges and universities).

The problem lies with the incredible cost of attending the small, regional private colleges and the hundreds of state universities and community colleges where nearly three-quarters of all U.S. college students actually go. There are more than 4,000 such schools in the United States. As noted above, these schools now cost almost as much, in real terms, as my elite school did in 1975.

It's true that the College Board says that nearly 60 percent of students at four-year colleges pay tuition and fees of less than $9,000 per year, and only 6 percent pay more than $33,000. About three-quarters of all students receive some kind of financial aid. But the cost is still too high.

Bruce Lewenstein as a freshman at the University of Chicago, August 1975.

Bruce Lewenstein as a freshman at the University of Chicago, August 1975. See larger image

Once you include living costs, even for commuters, the annual cost is $20,000 or more. That's about 40 percent of the median household income ($48,201 in 2006) -- or about the same level my parents paid in 1975 for my elite school, when $5,000 was about 40 percent of the average household income of $11,800.

Why is this? I'm not an expert, but I'm told it's a complex combination of increased costs for facilities, increased costs linked to environmental issues and financial accountability, higher labor costs associated with health care (magnified because education is a labor-intensive field) and reduced support from general tax revenues. That last point -- general tax revenues -- forces us to think about where we rank higher education among the obligations of our society. Tax dollars for higher education are often justified by an argument about economic benefit. For many, a college education is a route to a better job, both in stimulation and in pay (the latest figures suggest the lifetime benefit approaches $1 million). For others, education is one of our country's paths to social mobility, to moving past the barriers that race or poverty or geography or gender place in our way. For me and (I hope) my students, it's about learning to think, to treasure the inquiry and skepticism and creativity that define us as humans.

Part of the "genius" of American society is the variety available to us. Higher education is an example of that variety and a key element in creating opportunities for the future. Only a handful of schools can afford the kind of endowment support for financial aid that Cornell and its elite competitors offer. Most schools struggle just to pay the bills.

Clearly, we need to better fund the thousands of smaller colleges and universities that lack the huge endowments of elite universities. That begs the eternal question: How are we going to pay for it? Asking taxpayers to pay more for higher education is noble-sounding but not practical, particularly in such states as New York with very high tax burdens. Nor is cutting costs the answer -- higher education has already been cut to the bone.

Academia, business and government need to think about alternative funding sources. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer suggested borrowing the big-endowment idea from elite universities by proposing a $4 billion endowment for SUNY and CUNY schools; while that idea has apparently been shelved, current Gov. David Paterson has proposed substantially increasing the financial aid available to students in New York's public university system.

More financial aid will help. But the key problem is how we value education. Is it something just for the elites, for those with upper-middle-class incomes? Or is it something we, as a society, owe everyone to improve our society? We need a more thorough public discussion of how and why we value education, and then create means of implementing those values.

Bruce V. Lewenstein is a professor of science communication at Cornell.

Back to top