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Spiraling Costs

By Linda Perlstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 1999
Why education costs are rising so much, so inexorably

Ask people in the business of education why it now costs so much to teach young people how to read and write, get a BA or cross-examine a hostile witness, and you'll get a dozen explanations – and not a few gripes.

There are more teachers to pay. More buildings to be patched up, or built from scratch. More computers to hook up. A more complicated group of kids to teach. More government rules to comply with. More. More. More.

In the last 20 years, as inflation climbed by 165 percent, undergraduate tuition and fees at universities soared nearly 500 percent, and per-pupil spending in public school, kindergarten through 12th grade, grew 270 percent. That's double and a 42 percent rise, respectively, after inflation. In money-flowing-out-of-the-wallet terms, that means boomers who attended private college in 1978 and paid $2,958 for tuition and fees – that would be $7,047 adjusted for inflation – had to shell out $14,508 this year to send their offspring to the same place.

Costs were rising in other educational settings, too. Independent private schools: 42 percent for first grade, after adjusting for inflation. Community colleges: 38 percent. Law schools: 60 percent. (Which is why you can't swing a subpoena in Washington anymore without whacking a corporate lawyer who entered law school thinking he or she would go public interest – until he or she got the bill.)

Administrators say the biggest contributor to that ever-expanding schooling price tag is personnel. But before you envision covens of teachers sipping overpriced mai tais in Bermuda during one of those much-coveted summer vacations, take note: Salaries for schoolteachers actually increased less than 1 percent after inflation, and for professors they actually fell $5,000. There are more teachers, though, as schools offer smaller and more specialized classes. And the cost of keeping them healthy – educators tend to have notably flush benefits packages – has grown immensely.

Another big-ticket item these days is technology. When today's multizillionaire Web entrepreneur entered kindergarten 20 years ago, "technology" meant a new overhead projector. Things started to change the day his middle school got its first TRS-80. By the time he got to college, his dorm room was wired for the Internet and voice mail, and he registered for classes online. Back home, his old elementary school now boasts a Macintosh for every 10 kids and his high school has a VCR in every classroom. And none of that comes cheap.

Schools also are being hit by the costs of maintenance deferred for decades. And complying with 1980s and 1990s regulations – building wheelchair ramps, getting rid of asbestos, testing bus drivers for drugs, giving employees hepatitis B vaccin-ations – has cost a bundle.

For K-12, special education is a large factor. Over the last 20 years, following passage of the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act in 1975, the share of children designated as learning-disabled climbed from 3 percent to 13 percent. Public schools are now responsible for educating special-needs children – some from birth to adulthood, among them some who might not even have survived 20 years ago – and assimilating them where possible into regular classrooms. Much of the new spending goes to teachers and aides for special-needs students, though administrators also cite the costs of transporting some of the students to private schools and paying their tuition, in cases where the local schools can't accommodate them.

What else are schools paying for that they weren't 20 years ago? More teachers for children who don't speak English or don't speak it well enough. Helpers to translate bulletins into Spanish, Korean or Hmong. Guidance counselors in elementary schools. Lawyers to deal with a previously unfathomable volume of litigation. The processing of more standardized tests.

In higher education, a big chunk of the new money is going to goods, not just services.

Charles Sturtz, vice president for administrative affairs at the University of Maryland for the last 17 years, says one of the fastest-growing costs has been library collections. "It's very difficult to keep up," he says, "and we don't keep up, in fact."

College facilities are fancier, as schools fight to stand out to prospective students. Food courts have supplanted dining halls, and sparkling new gyms have weight rooms that often are far swanker than at Bally's. Dorm rooms have been redone to create dorm suites, with living rooms, kitchenettes and – given that the student-bathroom ratio is as closely tracked as the student-teacher ratio – zero tolerance for communal showers.

There are those who analyze the rising costs of education and see a nefarious process at work. Bruce Hammond, who is writing a book about how to afford college, speaks of the "Chivas Regal effect." The most prestigious schools, he says, keep prices high because they can. "Everyone else can either raise their prices and be affiliated with the elite," he says, "or they can make their prices lower and be second-rate."

What school wants to appear desperate? Ka-ching!

As America's population becomes more diverse and schools are expected to handle more noneducation demands, K-12 costs are projected to rise even faster over the next decade. The growth of the higher ed price tag, however, is projected to slow a little bit.

Colleges play by the rules of a market economy, after all. And as the government becomes stingier with grants, it seems even many Chivas schools are starting to hear from folk who say that Cutty Sark will do, thank you very much.

Linda Perlstein covers education for The Post's Metro section.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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