In 1950, about 6.2% of the population of the US had a college degree. By 1969, when I got my degree, that had increased to 10.8%. By 1982, when the last Boomers were graduating, it was 18%. By 2003, when the last Gen Xers graduated, it was 27.3%. In 2018 the last Millennials graduated en masse, and by then the figure was 35%. This looks like a great success story, and I'm sure many college administrators would tell you that it is--but it isn't.
Why not? In classical economic theory, when demand for a product increases, the price falls thanks to economies of scale. In this case the reverse has happened. Since the late 1960s the price of an elite education at a private school has increased more than threefold, even adjusting for inflation. That has given children of wealthy families a bigger edge in the admissions game, and in life, than they had back then, because the best schools need to keep replenishing their stock of wealthy alumni. I haven't researched figures for the best state universities, but many of them seemed to have risen much more in price--the UC system in the mid-1960s charged no tuition at all, but now charges $14,254 for resident tuition, about $44,000 for non-residents, and another $20,000 for health insurance and room and board. As a result, debt per student, which was $7,170 2020 dollars in 1970 ($1,070 in 1970 dollars), has now reached $30,000 per student. That's per total student--not per borrower.
Remarkably, no one, as far as I know, has undertaken the research necessary to figure out exactly why the price of college has gone up so much. Drawing on the example I know best, Harvard, I think I know, broadly speaking, the answer. There are now far more faculty and far more administrators per student than there were then. The number of full-time history faculty at Harvard increased from between 30 and 40 in 1965 to 47 in 2017, even though the size of the student body hardly increased at all and the number of history majors fell by more than 80%. Several other leading universities and liberal arts colleges that I looked into for my autobiography A Life in History showed the same pattern. Meanwhile, Harvard now has 10 vice presidents--only one of whom appears to be directly connected to education--who make an average of at least $300,000 a year. There were no vice presidents in the mid-1960s.
Meanwhile, the education the money buys--in the humanities and social sciences, at least--has gotten much worse. That is partly because of the increase in the scale of higher ed. It takes a very rare person--regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation--to make a great college teacher, and there have not been enough of them to go around. In addition, graduate students are discouraged from undertaking ambitious projects and encouraged to focus on a very narrow slice of history, which does not train them to teach undergraduates. Making a financial virtue of necessity, many schools have decided not to pay mediocre faculty living wages, and large numbers of students are taught by adjuncts at many colleges and universities (although not all.) Today's Boston Globe includes an article by Nicholas Tampio, who teaches political science at Fordham, complaining about a bill introduced by two of the finest Senators we have, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. It would generate data on the economic worth of a college degree, based both on the institution and on the subject in which the degree is granted. Tampio is worried that such statistics will drive more students away from the humanities and social sciences. In fact students have already deserted the humanities in droves because they have become so dominated by issues of gender and race. I have checked Tampio's own page on the Fordham web site, and his own courses seem to attack important questions from a traditional perspective--but he must know that political scientists like himself are increasingly the exception, and that quantitative analysis and rational choice theory have largely taken over his discipline, with soporific results.
The combination of vastly increased costs, largely financed by long-term debt, and mediocre education may account for the remarkable anger among today's undergraduates and professional students, which I wrote about last week. Students know at some level that they are being taken advantage of, and it makes them angry. They are also worried about their future in an increasingly cruel, winner-take-all economy. Encouraged by some faculty, some (including many white students) readily decide that their enemy is a racist, sexist, and gender-based oppressive university and society. I understand their anger but I think they have picked the wrong target.
Higher education is just one of several professions--including law and medicine--which has used its critical role in society to expand and achieve more wealth and power at the expense of everyone else. That is the theme of a remarkable book by Daniel Markovitz, a Yale law professor, The Meritocracy Trap. How these trends can reverse, I do not know--but I suspect real change will have to come from the inside, not the outside.