Why Are Private Universities So Freaking Expensive?

It can sometimes cost a lot less than you might think — but there’s still an insane, upward trend in tuition fees for both private and state colleges

You might think of private universities as offering an amazing education and entrée into the American Dream, with unparalleled emphases in liberal arts, fine arts, religious studies, or a specific field. Or you might think of them as reinforcing class hierarchies — basically finishing schools for the ruling class. 

Whatever you think of them, fuck, they’re expensive, aren’t they? 

So are they actually worth the price tag? Or is the price tag mostly to weed out all the poor slobs and keep them sitting below the salt from the elites? Let’s dedicate a study period to the topic.

Why are private colleges so insanely expensive?

There are a couple reasons — one is specific to private universities, but as you’ve probably noticed, the price of public universities has also skyrocketed in the past couple decades. (More on that in a bit).

The thing with private universities (we’re talking the sometimes elite, nonprofit variety — not the for-profit dross that advertises during Maury Povich and rips off its students) is that they receive no state money, unlike public universities. All their revenue comes from tuition and donations — most visibly from extremely wealthy alumni or benefactors, though they can come from all sorts of people.

Colleges overall have gotten a lot more expensive recently for both economic and more shady reasons (more on that also in a bit). But overall, despite their high price tag, private universities can represent (relatively) good value, because many students pay far less than the advertised price.

Sorry, but even a discount off of $50,000 is still a hell of a lot.

Fuckin’ A, brah. But the thing is, like I said, most people don’t pay the advertised price — in fact, most people pay less than half that. Even though the average cost in 2018-19 for private-college tuition and fees was $35,676 (versus $9,716 for in-state tuition at a public university and $21,629 for out-of-state tuition at a public university), private schools are more likely to offer need-based grant aid. Every university is different, but the result is that the average tuition discount at a private university is 52 percent. Keep in mind, that’s factoring in all the rich kids and legacy kids, some of whom get no discount at all. In other words, some private-college students get an 85 to 95 percent discount while others get zero.

Places like Vassar College offer need-blind admissions, and can sometimes meet full needs (though that makes a private school’s fund-raising and endowment efforts ever more important).

Even with 50 percent off, it’s still a lot of money.

Sure! College is usually expensive. But it turns out that Harvard, Yale and Princeton can end up being cheaper than attending a public University of California or California State University school. If you can get in, of course.

Cool, but again… still a lot of money. Why?

Sit back, relax and let these crazy stats wash over you: Between the late 1980s and 2018, the average cost of an undergrad degree rose 129 percent at private schools, and — are you ready for this? 213 percent at public schools. And yes, that’s adjusting for inflation.

Why did college get so goddamn expensive?

The first reason is economics. There are far more people attending college nowadays than ever before — 5 million more students attended college in 2017 (a total of 20.4 million) than in 2000. All other things being equal, the laws of supply and demand come into play. “Once demand goes up and nothing else happens, that will raise prices,” Richard Vedder, a professor emeritus of economics at Ohio University, explained to Business Insider.

In the case of state money going toward public universities, the total dollar amount has increased slightly over time, but with so many more students, the appropriation amount per student just can’t keep up — it’s fallen.

But all that financial aid…?

Ah. All that financial aid, according to what’s known as the Bennett Hypothesis, is making schools more expensive, actually (though it’s long been up for debate). Check this out: when laws such as the Middle Income Student Assistance Act were passed in 1978, it made students of any income level eligible for subsidized loans. So the hypothesis is that universities have taken advantage of all this readily available money from the government and raised their prices. Technically, according to the hypothesis, colleges wanted to raise prices anyway, but more money means it can be done more easily and faster. Certainly the timing of student loans proliferating and tuition increasing as it has correlate somewhat closely.

So what are all those tuition and fees going toward?

Have you been on a campus lately? Times have changed. The food is often much better (Malcolm Gladwell famously took Bowdoin College to task for its cage-free and grass-fed menu offerings), every athletic center has a rock climbing wall and a spare-no-expenses gym, and for some bizarre reason, an increasing number of universities in the South and Midwest (all public universities, but still) have each built, at great cost, their own lazy rivers on campus. 

The budget isn’t totally being eaten up by fluff like this, though. Campuses nationwide boast more academic support than ever, along with more counseling and health-care services, which have increased in cost. It’s a virtuous circle for universities: They invest in all this shit to attract more applications. The more applications they get, the pickier they can be about who they admit. Getting better students boosts their rankings on all those college lists, and as the profile of the university increases — wait for it — so does the tuition.

Overall, though, the biggest line item in a university’s budget is professors’ salaries. The proportion of tuition that goes toward salaries has fallen a bit, as universities hire more part-time faculty, who are on lower wages and fewer benefits. Yet universities are also spending more on rock-star academics in their field, luring them for non-instructional roles in order to, again, raise the university’s profile.

Still, can’t they streamline a few things? Make them more efficient?

The problem is that professors cost money, and universities not only have to fight among themselves for the good ones, but also with the lucrative private sector.

But also, colleges are a bit hamstrung when it comes to increases in efficiency. Larger class sizes, more adjunct faculty, fewer full-time professors or shorter hours are all tremendously unpopular with students, parents and the public. In the case of private universities, which rely solely on tuition and the largesse of big donors, most any unpopular idea is simply a nonstarter.

So how do I know how much a school is actually gonna cost?

Each school has a federally required net price calculator on its website to help estimate how much financial aid a person might receive at that college. That’s a good start. 

Meaning private schools aren’t automatically insanely expensive?

Relatively speaking — considering higher education is practically free in many other, more developed countries — no. They can be cheaper than a good state school, in some cases! It all depends on the student and their needs. Sure, some schools with their B.S. elitist societies pump out CEOs, investment bankers, hedge fund traders, senators and presidents. But if that school has what you want to study and you get accepted, the price you pay may turn out to be surprisingly reasonable.