Traditional four-year university is increasingly a luxury product for the elite

White Chapel
Canon PowerShot S95, 2012

I love to visit the campus of my alma mater and make photographs. There are great scenes at every turn.

It’s always been that way, but it’s moreso now after a giant building boom in the early 2000s. This picturesque little chapel was part of that boom, and it is often photographed.

I don’t visit campus as often now as I used to. It’s only about 90 minutes away, so it’s not because it’s hard to reach. I’ve just developed some negative feelings about the place over the last several years, and it’s all due to this school’s insane cost.

Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology is a private university in Indiana that specializes in engineering, science, and mathematics. For 20 straight years, US News and World Report has named it the #1 undergraduate engineering education in the nation. It’s a tough school — its highly intelligent students work very hard to earn their degrees.

It’s also a very expensive school. When I attended in the late 1980s, it cost about $60,000 to complete all four years, including tuition, room, and board. That was an eye-watering amount back then, and only Notre Dame was as expensive in Indiana. But financial aid was generous, and my working-class family qualified for a good amount of it. My family still had to stretch to afford it, but we managed it.

I have no idea how a working-class family would manage it today, as four years of Rose-Hulman now cost about 480 percent more – a little over $290,000.

Rose-Hulman has become a luxury product that only the elite can afford.

Our youngest son was accepted into Rose-Hulman four years ago. He got no financial aid. Now, we are hardly a working class family, so I didn’t expect a full ride. But we’re also not a wealthy family able to pay for this outright. After we paid what we could, our son would have to take out enormous loans for the rest. He was looking at $200,000 of debt upon graduation. We told him it was a bad idea, and he shouldn’t do it.

The company I worked for a few years ago had a number of young Rose grads as software engineers. Chatting with them one day about their Rose experiences, one of them offered that the worst part of it was the monthly student-loan payment. His was more than $2,500 each month. The other Rose grads all nodded in sad agreement. One said that he had hoped to join a hot startup upon graduation, and he had offers, but the inherently lower salaries were a barrier thanks to his huge student-loan payment. He had to take the offer from the large, established company we worked for simply because it paid a lot better. We worked with older, out-of-date technologies and he rightly worried that he was harming his future potential.

In Indiana, Purdue University remains a relative bargain at a hair over $80,000 for four years. You can get a very good engineering, science, or mathematics education there. When young people ask me about Rose-Hulman, I tell them to go to Purdue instead.

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34 responses to “Traditional four-year university is increasingly a luxury product for the elite”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    This won’t seem to make sense, but the private arts colleges, including one where my sister teaches commercial illustration, can easily break 250,000k for four years, your chance of even breaking 40k a year on graduation are practically nil. In my last situation in Indianapolis, my creative crew had an average paycheck of 24k a year (10k a year LESS than my average crew rate 15 years before in Chicago), and some of them had college loans of 150,000k! (Although Indianapolis was probably the lowest paid market I ever worked in). A fine arts education is strictly for the wealthy now, and my pals that teach at a high end arts program at a music school, say that most of their students come from families where the parents can just write a check. BTW, most people I know, their parents had no financial input in the college, they paid for it all themselves with loans, working, and grants.

    If you look at college as an asset you are investing in, that has to be judged against future earning potential available from that education. It actually doesn’t work out for most careers now. Not only did my nephews just go to state unis, a lot of parents are now recommending that you get your first two years at a community college, and then transfer to a state uni. In my day, UWM would only take about 60% of your credits from the state community college system schools, about 15 years ago, they sat down and worked things out so that they’ll now take all of it.

    1. Andy U,bo Avatar
      Andy U,bo

      A quick check online shows that MIAD art school in Milwaukee is over 200,000k, The famous Cranbrook in Michigan is ditto, and Lawerence, a well know music oriented school in Appleton Wisconsin is 240,000k plus. Sorry, but the earning potential for the average job available from an education from those schools are far less than technology engineering! How is that supposed to work out?

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      My alma mater will tell you all about the ROI of their degrees, predicated on the high salaries that graduates can command. But most graduates aren’t making the big bucks yet when they graduate — to be clear, it’s more than the average college graduate, but it’s still starting wages. To be saddled with a huge loan payment upon graduation is just an albatross around their necks. I can’t imagine getting a liberal-arts degree and trying to pay the loan payments after that.

  2. Melissa Dieckmann Avatar
    Melissa Dieckmann

    I attended a private liberal arts university in Indiana and the same is true for it. My kiddo is younger than yours, but her public education started talking about college and careers in 6th grade, including considerations about debt burden.

    I work at a regional comprehensive university in Kentucky where my kiddo can get merit scholarships, and my employer benefits currently include a tuition discount for immediate family members. After doing a deep dive into education costs for her current degree interests, she convinced herself that it might be better to do her undergraduate degree here so she can graduate with no debt burden.

    If she wants to go elsewhere, we will do our best to minimize her debt burden, but it’s something that our generation never really had to consider, and it makes me sad and mad that it limits her opportunities now.

    I see where money goes at even public universities, and it’s an exploding administrative hierarchy and unrealistic focus on athletics, at least in our case. And with public universities, state support has plummeted so tuition had to increase to offset the decline.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Graduating with little or no debt burden is very wise. My two sons both did that; their debt is about 12-15k each.

      I just don’t understand why states have reduced support so drastically. Educating your people is good for states! This seems so obvious to me, that I have to assume that the underlying reasons aren’t about education but are about some other political purpose.

      1. Chris Douglas Avatar
        Chris Douglas

        Less educated people are easier to gaslight and manipulate. I seem to remember an orange-hued past president remarking to a crowd how much he loved “the poorly educated”.

        1. Andy Umbo Avatar
          Andy Umbo

          I paid something like $267.00 a semester at UWM in Milwaukee in the early 70’s. The huge increase first happened when Ronald Reagan had the federal government start defunding colleges…Most republicans think he was their “Saint”, when in reality so much of the start of the drop in finances for the middle class can be laid at his table. Melissas’s remark about unrealistic focus on athletics is also very true. College coaches that make as much as professional coaches is ridiculous!

  3. -N- Avatar

    I went to the University of California on full scholarship, no student debt. Same with my sister. You are right – private universities are expensive. Public schools offer excellent educations on many levels, and many are choosing them. Sadly, politics are ruining education.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Here in Indiana, we are very fortunate to have Purdue. It’s inexpensive even among public universities!

  4. Marc Beebe Avatar

    Yes if you can afford a degree in the US these days – you don’t need one ’cause you’re rich already. Maybe your country would like to join the civilized world where education is considered a benefit to society, not just the few individuals who can afford it. Honestly I don’t know how younger generations are affording -anything- these days, and the inflated costs are all due to the graft of making rich people richer.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      All true.

  5. brineb58 Avatar

    School is definitely out of control cost-wise. I went to Pratt Institute 1976-80, it started out as $75 a credit and the final year it was $125 per credit. I just checked online and it’s currently $2,058 per credit. I would never be able to afford that now!!!

    1. Andy Umbo Avatar
      Andy Umbo

      My sis was at Pratt in the mid 80’s…great school!

  6. tbm3fan Avatar

    My years at San Diego State University cost $178/yr. between 1971-76. My years at UC Berkeley, 1977-81, cost me $750/yr. I had zero loans. Today SDSU is $8,136 while UC is $14,226 per year. Inflation adjusted would make SDSU $941 and UC $2,482 per year. The clear reason is a 50% increase in students at State Universities, a 90% increase at UC, along with a 13% decrease in state funding. Especially pronounced since 2000. My son turns 14 tomorrow, still 8th grade, and talks to me about college. Right now I tell him Community JC would be the smart thing to get your basic GE classes and then transfer over to a four year school for the last two years. No on knows you didn’t do four years and it is a lot easier to get what you want as a JC transfer than as a freshman. Of course that is in 2027.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I remember hearing the young adults just ten years older than me talk about their college costs and they were in line with yours. Blew my mind. It was already changing big in the mid 80s.

  7. DougD Avatar

    Yes, I remember when my tuition at University of Windsor went over $1,000 in the late 80’s and being kind of offended. Now my kids’ are in for $8k per semester. All major universities in Canada are state schools, in engineering the closest we have to “elite” education is Waterloo U, and the guys who got punted out of that program and landed in ours did just fine and went on the have careers.

    Once again I’ll put in a plug for Malcolm Gladwell’s takedown of the school system in his Revisionist History podcast series. The episodes are entitled:

    Carlos Doesn’t Remember
    Food Fight
    My Little Hundred Million

    Luckily we started saving money when our kids were born so they wouldn’t be saddled with post graduation debt. The fund is almost gone now, but we’re sure thankful we were in a position to be able to do that. We also made it clear that an education with a good ROI was required. Many years ago the job market valued a liberal arts degree and a person could launch a career from one, now the requirements are so specialized it’s near impossible.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, if you’re going to university today, you’d really better be majoring in something that will lead to a job in a specific field. Otherwise, the money university costs just isn’t worth it.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Valpo’s plight is going to become common among private colleges and universities, I’m sure.

    2. tbm3fan Avatar

      Padilla thinks he can get more students with new dorms. Yeah, right! If he wants more students he won’t get it at $45,000 per year as it is that simple. He can’t compete at that level. He has an endowment he won’t touch? Then why have it? What he needs to do, to get more students, is drastically lower the tuition as right now it is at elite level where few, in their right mind, would pay that or go into debt for. As for the paintings, if the Trust is still in existence, then the Trust needs to pull their paintings out of the school.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        I’ve said similar about MIAD art college here in Milwaukee…it’s in beat up old warehouse buildings from the late 1800’s / early 1900’s, that are falling apart. It has a staff and faculty that is certainly not famously known in the national community. They upcharge everything, and cheapskate out the teachers, so they don’t attract the premium faculty, and yet, they’re a similar cost to nationally known premium schools like Cranbrook. How’s that going to work out? I think it’s the place to go if your high school grades aren’t that hot, and you’re willing to pay the toll. I certainly think a state uni would be far more rewarding for less money than this!

  8. seatacphoto1951 Avatar

    My granddaughter, a year ago, asked whether a state school costing between $8,000 and $10,000, before scholarships, a year would be preferential to a school costing 2 to 4 times as much. She has worked since 11th grade and will pay for much of her education. She had pressure from others that a famous university, though costing much more, was the way to go. I told her to go to the state school. A month ago, she told me she was going to CSUN, a state school.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      There are reasons to go to a famous university that make the cost make sense. For most of us, the reasons aren’t there.

  9. Doug Vaughn Avatar
    Doug Vaughn

    Our two kids were in college at the same time about 10 years ago. When they were making school choices, I told them our “parent funded” budget was $40K four year total for each one. They could go anywhere they wanted, but the excess would be their burden to bear. They both wisely chose state schools and lived at home rather than in dorms. Both graduated without a single dollar of debt.

    I compare this to so many coworkers who paid obscene amounts every year for bragging rights about the expensive schools their kids attended. I was more than happy to put that money into retirement investments.

    P.S. My own education from 1982-1986 cost about $300 per semester plus $100 in books at a California State University. How times have changed.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I did about 60k for each son for four years. They made their choices and signed their (small) loans. Neither kid went to a prestigious school but both of them are successfully living independently in jobs that are in the fields they studied.

  10. Greg Clawson Avatar
    Greg Clawson

    Jim I worked for a mechanical contractor for years at Purdue and all that infrastructure costs millions of dollars annually. They have 35,000 employees, 40,000 students, and hundreds of buildings.
    Purdue finished a new STEM building that cost over 65 million dollars, has 125 fume hoods, 70 vac pumps and purified water, nitrogen, and natural gas to each.
    We were finishing the labs and new Nikon microscopes were brought in and installed on lab tables. I said I have Nikon cameras and they are not cheap and asked how much they cost. He said in total about $250K! They also use Leica scopes in some areas, no idea of cost there!
    I googled Purdue annual budget, it’s about $2.5B!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Of course it’s all expensive! I remember when my school rebuilt its labs from scratch. $$$$$.

  11. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    Every so often there is some kind of social revolution or war that takes away many of the class distinctions that divide society. The New Zealand I grew up in was very egalitarian, with free education including university for those who needed or deserved it. User pays now, although the fees are nothing like as outrageous as what you describe. Medical care and pharmaceuticals are subsidised, with free hospital care, so we still do some things reasonably well. Entrenched elitism, whether based on a class system or on wealth is very destructive, and sad.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      In the US it looks like we oscillate between building a strong elite and then egalitarianizing things because of war or depression, and then we build back up to a strong elite. Looks like we’re due for a war or depression here.

      1. Steve Mitchell Avatar

        Yup, I fear we will not need to wait very long…

  12. David Avatar

    Good commentary! Add in the recent employment issues with the big players each letting go of 10,000 +/- of their staff in the last couple of months.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Crazily, in those industries there’s as much hiring going on as there are layoffs. I’ve never seen anything like it.

  13. J P Avatar

    I have read that a university education has become more of a credential for entry into the upper classes of society more than an education. Those who can pay the big bucks for elite schools get entry to higher levels of status and contacts than those of us who went to state schools.

    My 3 kids went to Catholic schools for 12 years, and we paid plenty of tuition for those. There are many Catholic liberal arts schools that recruit from Catholic high schools, and they are eye-poppingly expensive. A niece went to LaSalle in Philadelphia and she once shared the amount of her debt after graduating – it was into 6 figures, as I recall. There was no way my kids were doing that, and went to state schools. They came out with some debt, but nothing anything like that of my niece.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, that’s true. Get into a big elite school and the contacts you make will change your life.

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