Is Duke right that $60,000 tuition is a bargain?

Is Duke right that $60,000 tuition is a bargain?


Duke University is fighting back against the perception that college education is overpriced and a waste of time by claiming that in fact $60,000 per year is a bargain. Yeah, you read that right, a bargain. In fact, they claim that in order to reflect actual costs they should charge $90,000 per year. It makes you wonder why it costs more than 1.7 times the median household income[1] to educate one college student per year.

Now Duke offers a breakdown of where that $60,000 goes toward its overall budget, but I don’t think it convinces as well as they think it does. They say that $14,000 of the yearly total goes toward administrative and support salaries. That’s nearly 25 percent. But don’t you need secretaries and custodians and cafeteria workers and, well, whatever else administration does? Let’s look at it another way. According to a 2011 Washington Monthly article, since 1975 colleges have vastly expanded their administrative functions without a concurrent expansion of teaching roles:

Between 1975 and 2005 […] the faculty-to-student ratio has remained fairly constant, at approximately fifteen or sixteen students per instructor. One thing that has changed, dramatically, is the administrator-per-student ratio. In 1975, colleges employed one administrator for every eighty-four students and one professional staffer—admissions officers, information technology specialists, and the like—for every fifty students. By 2005, the administrator-to-student ratio had dropped to one administrator for every sixty-eight students while the ratio of professional staffers had dropped to one for every twenty-one students.

And so the next generation is mortgaging their futures to employ vast armies of “vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, and deanlings, all of whom command staffers and assistants.”

As for the actual faculty, they cost $21,000, plus another $7,000 for their support staffs. Duke claims that it costs that much to hire star professors and to pay for research teams and teaching fellows and assistants and labs. But does all that research and publishing and all that activity actually help the undergraduate? Does it help him get a job after graduation? Is it worth thousands of dollars in loans and the interest on those loans? It benefits Duke and the research and publication probably benefits society (not to mention the lucrative profits from monetizing the scientific discoveries), but it’s just another burden placed on those least able to afford it.

A couple of other salient facts about Duke’s pie chart. For one thing, it seems to assume that the university’s operating income for its operating budget comes from tuition, but for the vast majority of colleges a substantial portion of their funds comes from gifts to the school, investment income from endowments, and in the case of public schools, tax money. Thus their pie chart is skewed in one way.

Another fly in the ointment is that $20,000 that goes to financial aid. This is the part that seems odd. Give us $60,000 and then we’ll give some portion of that back as aid. If you get more than $20,000 back you’re actually getting a discount. If you get less than $20,000 then you’re helping subsidize other students.

That’s right. About 60% of students are mortgaging their futures at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars in interest over the years in some cases, in order to help pay for the other 40% of students to go to school too.[2] Does that seem right? Duke admits that about half of all their students are paying $20,000 per year to subsidize their classmates’ education.

Now some would say that’s okay because those who can afford to pay should help those who can’t. Except “can afford to pay” is such a subjective judgment. There are families that have scrimped and saved, that have mortgaged everything, that have foregone retirement saving in favor of college saving. And even then most end up with huge post-graduation loan burdens.

There is a higher-education bubble, just like there was a housing bubble a few years ago, and despite Duke’s dissembling, tuitions are out of whack and are imposing incredible burdens that are beginning to drag down our economy. Most young people would be better off learning a trade, going through non-tradiitonal education, or getting jobs that train you as you go than if they spent four years learning gender theory, partying like maniacs, and cramming for exams in order to forget everything the next day.

  1. Median household income in the US from 2008 to 2012 was $53,046  ↩

  2. According to a chart provided by Duke at the NPR link, about 55% of students pay full price and another 5% pay between $40,000 and full price.  ↩

  • I wish I would’ve seen this entry when it was first posted. I would love to see a good discussion by faithful Catholic parents of paying for college.

    With our oldest a rising high school senior, we’re facing college tuition. We’re very fortunate that she is both an excellent student and and an excellent test taker. She qualifies for automatic full tuition scholarships at schools like the nearby Drexel and Temple. Unfortunately, she doesn’t want to go to them. I don’t blame her – they’re very urban and somewhat overwhelming for an upper middle class kid from the suburbs.

    What we’ve done is tell our daughter the amount we’re willing and able to pay for college and now she needs to find a school she wants that falls under that amount. Since we know we can afford our local Penn State branch campus without loans, we will not sign for student loans for her. We will not be filing a FAFSA since we won’t qualify for aid. She is at the mercy of merit scholarships. The most prestigious schools do not give them (Harvard, MIT, etc.) and the next tier down (Boston College) only has a very limited number that they give and they’re usually given to kids who bring some diversity to the table. That has her looking at schools like St. Joe’s, Catholic U, and U Scranton. All nearby places with honors colleges where she’ll be in contention for full tuition scholarships. (Full disclosure – we’re not under any delusion that Scranton or St. Joe’s are Catholic. We’re just following the money and for good students, small Jesuit schools seem to have a lot of it).

    We figure if we don’t allow student loans, she won’t get caught in the bubble. It’s hard because she is such a good student and in terms of future opportunities, schools like U Penn and Princeton have a lot to offer a kid like her. But we can’t make an exception for her, and then not allow loans for the next six kids.

    • Philly,

      I can sympathize. You want your high-performing child to go to the best school. We’ve been trained to believe that if we do any less, then we’re robbing our children of something. In fact, in most cases, it doesn’t matter that much where they go for undergrad … with one caveat: Studies have shown that apart from the most Catholic of schools, Catholic kids who go to non-Catholic colleges end up coming out more Catholic than kids who go to Catholic schools. So there might be a reason to avoid those barely-Catholic Jesuit schools.

      So unless, your child can get into an Ivy, there’s no real long-term life benefit to choosing one school over another. Find a school that you can afford that lets her study something decent and that won’t indoctrinate her into bizarre ideologies and she’ll do well.

      Here’s something controversial I’ve been pondering as well: If a young woman feels called to religious life or life as a stay-at-home mom, she should factor that into any decision to mortgage her future with a college education and the attendant loans.