This is the season when millions of parents start watching anxiously for a thin letter from that special college or university. No, it is not bad tidings about admissions they fear. These parents are waiting to hear how much tuition, room and board costs will go up for their already matriculated sons and daughters.
Soon the pundits will start their ominous warnings about how the cost of higher educations, especially in the independent sector, is being priced out of the financial reach of most families. We will hear dire predictions that such universities are becoming elitist havens for the every rich, depriving the over-taxed and under-appreciated "silent majority" of middle Americans access to this part of the American heritage.
Is all of this true? Have the costs of high-quality universities escalated beyond the reach of even white, affluent, upper-middle class families? Will the applicant pool for these colleges evaporate, as some individual families insist on sending their children to taxpayer-supported systems and others stop sending them to college at all?
Underlying this prophecy of educational doomsday are two erroneous assumptions: first, that it is cheaper to operate a state university than a private one, and second, that financing a college education now takes a much larger percentage of a family's budget than a generation ago. It costs as much to run a quality, state supported college as a private one, for the discount price charged to the parent means that taxpayers collectively offer a hidden scholarship to every student in the system. In the independent sector, the endowment, the philanthropic generosity of generations past and present, makes a similar, if smaller, contribution for the individual parent.
There has always been a spread between public and independent tuitions (but not room and board) for in-state students at public universities, but society at large saves substantially by maintaining independently funded colleges. It has been estimated that if all the independent sector colleges closed, the cost of the taxpayers would exceed six billion dollars. While these may be valuable financial savings for individual parents, especially if their children are lucky enough to have access to a good state university system, America collectively both profits from our plural system economically and prospers culturally and educationally under it.
The second myth that college has become case study illustrates. Brandeis University opened its doors in 1948. It has become since then a superior research university in the liberal arts tradition. As an "instant" university, it had to build an entire plant, create a library, hire a superb faculty and offer a superior education without a large endowment or a vast family fortune to support it. Despite these exceptional characteristics, it has always had to compete in price with its academic sister schools for students and to watch closely the market factors of student supply and demand.
In 1948-49, the Brandeis tuition was $500, the room and board rate $700, for a total billed cost of $1,200. (For comparative purposes, Harvard costs then were $1,205, Tufts costs were $1,200). That same year, according to Consumer Reports, a standard, four-door Ford V-8 sedan without accessories but including dealer preparation, delivery and federal excise taxes cost $1,346. In 1956-57 the total billed charges at Brandeis were $1,735, while the Ford "Fairlane 500" sedan cost $2,433. In 1967-68 Brandeis' total billed costs had risen to $3,000, while the manufacturer's suggested retail price for the "Fairlane 500" was $2,805. This year Brandeis' tuition is $3,875 with room, board and other fees totalling a staggering $5,941. (For comparative purposes, charges at Havard this year are $6,520 and are $5,960 at Tufts).
A recent call to a local Ford dealer in Walthun revealed, however, that the full-sized Ford with "the options most people buy" will cost over $6,300. The actual cost of an automobile will vary from these figures, depending on trade-in, distance from factory, selection of extras and old-fashioned haggling. But, the cost of that most scared of American institutions, the family car, has paralleled yearly total billed costs at a quality college or university over the last 30 years.
Today the monetary "worth" of a college degree is severely questioned; a long-haul truck driver probably earns more than a college professor. Even the intellectual value of a liberal arts degree is subject to challenge, as the search for an elusive veritas is dismissed cynically.
Quality higher education, however, remains a spectacular "buy" for individual parents and for society at large. Without humane, technically trained men and women literate in the traditional skills and modern languages of science and technology - people able to think, to ask the right questions, to challenge the answers and to continue to search for "truth evne unto its innermost parts" - America stands a lesser chance of coping with the problems that oppress mankind. The parents of this generation are the students of 1948. Can it be that they would "really rather have a Buick" or a Ford than a quality education for their children?