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It was only a matter of time before a college would have the nerve to quote its cost of attendance at nearly $100,000 a year. This spring, we’re catching our first glimpse of it.

One letter to a newly admitted Vanderbilt University engineering student showed an all-in price — room, board, personal expenses, a high-octane laptop — of $98,426. A student making three trips home to Los Angeles or London from the Nashville campus during the year could hit six figures.

This eye-popping sum is an anomaly. Only a tiny fraction of college-going students will pay anything close to this anytime soon, and about 35 percent of Vanderbilt students — those who get neither need-based nor merit aid — pay the full list price.

But a few dozen other colleges and universities that reject the vast majority of applicants will probably arrive at this threshold within a few years. Their willingness to cross it raises two questions for anyone shopping for college: How did this happen, and can it possibly be worth it?

According to the College Board, the average 2023-24 list price for tuition, fees, housing and food was $56,190 at private, nonprofit four-year schools. At four-year public colleges, in-state students saw an average $24,030 sticker price.

That’s not what many people pay, though, not even close. As of the 2019-20 school year, according to federal data that the College Board used in a 2023 report, 39 percent of in-state students attending two-year colleges full time received enough grant aid to cover all of their tuition and fees (though not their living expenses, which can make getting through school enormously difficult). At four-year public schools, 31 percent paid nothing for tuition and fees while 18 percent of students at private colleges and universities qualified for the same deal.

Those private colleges continue to provide hefty discounts for people of all sorts of incomes. A National Association of College and University Business Officers study showed private nonprofit colleges and universities lowering their tuition prices by 56 percent from the rack rate during the 2022-23 school year.

Vanderbilt provides discounts, too, and its financial aid is extraordinarily generous. This year, it announced that families with income of $150,000 or less would pay no tuition in most instances.

Still, over 2,000 students there who get no need-based or merit aid will soon pay $100,000 or more. Why does Vanderbilt need all of that money?

At a few small liberal arts colleges with enormous endowments, even $100,000 would not cover the average cost of educating a student, according to the schools. Williams College says it spends roughly $50,000 more per student than its list price, for instance.

In other words, everyone is getting a subsidy. Perhaps its list price should be over $100,000, too, so that its endowment is not offering unneeded help to wealthy families. Or, perhaps, a price that high would scare away low-income applicants who do not realize that they might get a free ride there.

According to Vanderbilt, its spending per undergraduate is $119,000. “The gap between the price and cost of attendance is funded by our endowment and the generous philanthropy of donors and alumni,” Brett Sweet, vice chancellor for finance, said in an emailed statement.

No one at the school would meet with me to break this figure down or get on the phone to talk about it. But Vanderbilt’s financial statements offer clues to how it spends money. In the 2023 fiscal year, 52 percent of its operating expenses went to faculty, staff and student salaries and wages, plus fringe benefits.

Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman, two academics who wrote “Why Does College Cost So Much?,” explained in their book why labor costs were so tricky at these institutions.

“The critical factors are that higher education is a personal service, that it has not experienced much labor-saving productivity growth, and that the wages of the highly educated workers so important at colleges and universities have soared,” they said. “These are economywide factors. They have little to do with any pathology in higher education.”

Critics of the industry still believe that a kind of administrative bloat has set in, driving up tuition with outsize salaries. But what is bloat, really?

Administrators oversee compliance, like the laws that have made it possible for disabled people to get to and through college and keep schools from discriminating against women. If we don’t like regulation, we can vote for different legislators.

Similarly, families in a free market can make alternative choices if they want fewer mental health practitioners and their bosses, computer network administrators, academic advisers or career counselors. And yet the first (prescreened) question that Vanderbilt’s chancellor, Daniel Diermeier, answered on family weekend this past fall was about whether Vanderbilt should invest even more in career advising in the wake of the school’s five-spot decline in the annual U.S. News rankings.

If many families are not exactly lining up for a cut-rate residential undergraduate education, they’re still asking plenty of good questions about value. So is a $400,000 college education ever worth it?

It depends, and you knew that answer was coming, right?

Most college shoppers wonder about income outcomes, and it’s possible to search by undergraduate major on the federal government’s College Scorecard website. This program-level data exists for alumni who are four years out from graduation, though only for those who received any federal financial aid.

Vanderbilt’s biomedical/medical engineering majors have median earnings of $94,340 four years out. English language and literature majors are earning $53,767.

Those are fine results, but are they exclusive to Vanderbilt? “You could get an engineering degree at a state flagship university that’s just as valuable as something you’d get at Vanderbilt,” said Julian Treves, a financial adviser and college specialist whose newsletter tipped me off to the goings-on there.

I spent a few days trying to get Vanderbilt’s vice provost for university enrollment affairs, Douglas L. Christiansen, to talk to me and answer these questions squarely and more expansively, but I did not succeed. A university spokeswoman sent me some generalities in his name. “We are committed to excellence at all levels, from the quality of our faculty, programming, facilities and research labs to the services we provide to support the academic, emotional and social well-being of our students,” went the statement.

In anticipation of the absence of a substantive reply, I attended a group information session for 125 or so prospective students and asked there, too. The senior admissions officer who took the question refused to answer. I’d never seen that before, and I’ve been to these sessions at dozens of schools over the years.

But really, why should an actor in a competitive marketplace answer that question if the person doesn’t absolutely have to? Without publicly available, industrywide quantitative data on quality — happiness scores, customer satisfaction, measures of learning, return on friendship, the strength of career networks — the list price alone serves as a signal of excellence, to some shoppers at least.

And thousands of applicants respond to the signal each year by volunteering to pay the list price, even as the school rejects the vast majority of applicants. Or maybe they volunteer precisely because Vanderbilt and schools like it reject the vast majority of applicants.

So a $100,000 list price is not our highest-priority outrage. The spectacle of wealthy people freely purchasing luxury services is nothing new, even if it is a totally worthy object of scrutiny (and an understudied phenomenon by academics themselves, ahem).

What is a problem, then? Brent Joseph Evans, an associate professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt’s college of education and human development, started his career as an admissions officer at the University of Virginia. There, he sold the institution to boarding school students in New England and teenagers in the Appalachian foothills.

The former group might pay $100,000 per year, though many of them won’t get into the Vanderbilts of the world in the first place. They will surely find their way somewhere.

But that latter group? Professor Evans is worried about their access to any school at all.

“We should care about whether they get into a state university system at a low cost and find a well-paying career that can keep them in the middle class,” he said. “I do think that sometimes any tension over what elite colleges are doing moves us away from what we should be caring about as a society.”

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