"A college can only charge as much as students are willing and able to pay. In recent decades, though, federal (and some state) lawmakers have forked over ever-more money to student aid - enabling colleges to charge exorbitant prices.
Consider the per-pupil cost of tuition, fees, room and board, as tracked by the College Board. At private US four-year institutions, the "price" of college rose to an average of $30,367 for the 2006-07 school year - up 208 percent over the last two decades. At public four-year institutions, the rise was almost 216 percent.
Overall inflation in that period? Consumer prices rose about 84 percent. It's clear that Higher Ed's got a big problem.
How do we know the problem isn't just that colleges' own expenses are rising?
Consider two costs - energy and staff.
Energy costs have ballooned nationwide - but they've risen faster on campus. A recent Forbes analysis found that the cost of "heating, cooling and powering" colleges rose 124 percent between 1983 and 2007, while businesses saw only a 60 percent rise. Our colleges and universities plainly haven't felt the same pressures to achieve energy efficiency.
And, in an era when the private sector has been pruning management fat, Higher Ed's been adding it: Federal education statistics show that the number of campus executives and administrators per hundred students grew by more than a fifth from 1976 to 2005.
In other words, colleges and universities have been able to raise prices with impunity - and even add to their fat - because government's ensured that students can pay.
It's a vicious cycle: Parents and students complain that the cost of college is too high. Politicians, seeking votes, boost aid. Colleges, competing for better-heeled students, offer nicer amenities and charge higher tuition. Parents and students complain again - and the addiction deepens.
The only people with the power to force Higher Ed into rehab are the politicians, who could slow down aid and get the Ivory Tower on the road to recovery. But few pols are willing to engage in "tough love."
Indeed, the credit crunch offered politicians built-in cover to begin weaning Higher Ed off of easy money - by claiming that bigger problems forced their hands. Instead, they once again increased the flow of taxpayer dollars.
There's no other conclusion: The Ivory Tower is addicted to taxpayer cash, and Washington is happy to keep the junkie hooked."
Here's an example of the old shell game being played with OUR money:
In Gainesville, University of Florida students have a transportation fee added into their tuition. This then allows them to ride any bus in the city just by flashing their student ID card. The teachers get a free ride as well, so we're talking about 65,000 pre-paid, 'round the clock bus rides each and every day. For those who cannot afford it, government grants step in to make up the difference.
Trouble is, less than a third of those eligible ride the buses, as is evidenced by the literal thousands of scooters and beater-cars clogging the highways and byways. The city makes out like a bandit though, as the University along with the Federal Government assure that mass transit here ALMOST breaks even. Whenever the Regional Transit System is in need of a few extra bucks...say when there are no students in class and bus routes are shut down but the drivers and mechanics and maintenance and management and campus police department still need to be paid to do nothing...the city calls for help from the University and "new and improved" routes are added to the schedule in order to induce Uncle Sam to fork over some extra cash.
Which it does, and with a smile. We therefore subsidize not only the University, but the Transit System, the road workers, the cops, and anyone remotely associated with this shell game. They all proudly point to a balanced budget and the University crams more and more students into a finite space each and every year because there's gold in them 'thar kids.