The high cost of college today and why I’m disappointed in my alma mater

Three of our sons are heading off to university this week and next. My oldest begins his final year at Purdue, my youngest his second year at University of Indianapolis, and our youngest his first year at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.

That school was not our son’s first choice. It wasn’t anywhere on his list of preferred schools, actually. Unfortunately for our son, our family’s serious life challenges in 2017 and 2018 led us to be very late in the very important process of selecting a school. It limited our son’s options. IUPUI is a good school with several excellent programs, including a major in our son’s area of interest. But he chose IUPUI because it was available and affordable, not because he wanted to go there.


Our son will get a fine education at IUPUI. But he will attend his first classes there on Monday less than fully excited. Our bright and capable son applied to many very good schools and was accepted into every one. He was even accepted into my alma mater, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a high bar to clear. That tough little engineering school in Terre Haute, Indiana, has offered the best undergraduate engineering education in the nation for more than 10 years running, according to U.S. News and World Report.

College costs have ballooned nationwide since 1989, when I graduated from Rose. All four years cost roughly $60,000 then, which was considered a positively astronomical sum. In those days Rose was neck and neck with Notre Dame as the most expensive schools by far in Indiana.

Today, one year of Rose-Hulman costs about $60,000.

None of our son’s preferred schools offered enough financial aid, but Rose-Hulman’s offer fell the shortest by far. They offered thousands in grants and guaranteed student loans. They also assumed his mother and I would contribute a very large sum, one that we would have found very challenging to pay. But even after all of those funds were applied Rose wanted $37,000 more, and advised our son to seek private student loans in that amount.

We looked into those loans. The only ones we could find began compounding interest immediately. At the offered interest rate, that $37,000 would have ballooned to nearly $60,000 by the time he graduated. If he had to borrow that much each of his four years, with interest those private loans would total about $201,000 upon graduation.

I cannot justify that kind of debt even for the best undergraduate engineering education in the nation. Very good engineering educations are available for far, far less money at other schools.

White Chapel

I called Rose’s financial aid office hoping that my alumnus status might open a door. Nope. The woman I spoke to was very kind, apologetic even, but said that on appeal the most our son would get was an extra thousand dollars.

Rose-Hulman is now simply out of reach for a family with middle-class (or less) money.

Small, private colleges are struggling to survive across America. Rose-Hulman, I believe, saw it coming. As they quadrupled the cost of admission over the last 30 years, they also built a world-class campus that can attract the elite (read: wealthy), who can pay. I hardly recognize the place; the campus I attended in the 1980s was spare, almost ramshackle. Rose did this so it could continue its mission. Reluctantly, I have to say I can’t blame them.

But as a once proud alumnus, as the son of a factory worker who had a life-changing experience at Rose, as someone to whom his Rose-Hulman education has paid lifelong dividends, I’m disappointed to the core.

I’ve written many times about my Rose-Hulman experiences; click here to read it all.


15 responses to “The high cost of college today and why I’m disappointed in my alma mater”

  1. Reinhold Graf Avatar

    Seems to me like the American way … you can reach everything … as long as you can afford it. Comparted to that, German Universities seem to be quite stupid. Some years ago Bavaria tried to establish a 500 EUR fee per semester … the plan was cancelled after a public outcry and the following public referendum. So its still rather inexpensive – compared to private universities elsewhere.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      There are certainly disadvantages to every system. Ours very powerfully tends to keep you in the class into which you are born. My dad did something incredibly remarkable: he saw his working-class children become upper-middle-class adults.

  2. Michael Avatar

    I echo your sentiments. I believe Samuel would like to go there (at this point at least!), but there’s no way it will happen unless they provide serious financial aid. It’s the best education, but just not worth the cost. I was shocked to discover ND is not a trivial bit more, too. Scary.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think we’re headed toward a time when only the wealthy can afford private educations, and the rest of us will go to state schools.

  3. J P Avatar

    I am on the outer edge of that experience as my last kid is getting a diploma signed right about now.

    It rankles me that college has become way more expensive as it has become (in many ways) less relevant. For every engineering degree program there is another in something like animal behavior where the odds of getting a decent job are about 2 percent. It is like college has become a really expensive initiation process to join the middle class. And it no longer even guarantees that you will make it into middle class.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I told my sons that I would not pay for it if they wanted to major in medieval history or some such that did not lead to good employment — precisely because a college degree in anything no longer ensures entry into the middle class.

      1. J P Avatar

        Which is a shame because a large part of me believes that a university education should be something more than a high-end trade school. I suspect that the low level of public discourse today is a result of the disappearance of the quality liberal arts education.

        1. TBM3FAN Avatar

          ” I suspect that the low level of public discourse today is a result of the disappearance of the quality liberal arts education.”

          This right here. My education was geared to the sciences so I could end up in the medical field. However, I took far more units than I needed to graduate in and those were taken in the liberal arts field to expand my mind. That sentence above cannot be underestimated.

  4. jchasbeck Avatar

    My dissertation looks at the rise of tuition fees (private financing) in higher education in Germany, England, and the U.S., and the ways in which students and others are pushing back in various ways in these countries. When I settled on the topic, I hadn’t realized that it was because it had been haunting me since high school. Then, I chose a local private college that offered substantial scholarships over an out-of-state public institution where I’d have taken on $20-30k in debt per year.

    My alma mater has recently cut its tuition fees to lower than when I entered a decade ago, which is impressive, but more a response to declining enrollment than accessibility for working and middle class families (though if that’s a side effect, I’ll take it as a positive one). When NYS began considering a plan to make public universities “tuition free,” my alma mater came out swinging against it. That’s when I submitted this op-ed to the school’s paper as a concerned alumnus:

    Great post, Jim, and an incredibly important (and frustrating) topic.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Free public universities will be a nail in the coffin of many private schools — perhaps for many schools the last nail. Why seek private education when you can go to State U for nothing? I’d not send my one son to that private school if Purdue were free!

      1. jchasbeck Avatar

        Well, if it looks anything like the NYS model it’ll still be far from free. My kid sister is currently taking out ~$12k a year for a public university, even after the new tuition support. But the broader point raises some important and difficult questions.

  5. DougD Avatar

    Did you listen to Gladwell’s podcast trilogy on education?

    Interesting stuff. My own son got a deferrment to 2019 to he is working at an outdoors camp until this time next year. Another year of maturity under his belt will be a good thing. Best wishes to your sons!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That podcast was pointed out to me elsewhere today. Fascinating.

  6. dionyb Avatar

    A timely post for me since my family just paid the tuition for my oldest child’s second year at Purdue. I don’t know how you do it with three in college. I’m not sure where we’ll find the money when my youngest goes to university in two years.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Being Director of Engineering in a software company pays well enough for us to manage it all. Just. There’s little wiggle room.

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