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Colleges in a self-enriching cycle

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Commentary:

My parents started a college fund for me when I was still in my mother’s womb.

When I was a little kid, anytime I got money in a birthday or Christmas card, some would go into the college fund. When I graduated from high school, I still didn’t know what I wanted to be. But I had no doubt as to how I would spend the next four years.

My dad was like so many others of that era who served in World War II then went to college on the GI Bill. The prevailing thinking at that time was, the best way to get off the farm or out of the factory and into a cushy, high-paying desk job was to get a college degree.

The prevailing thinking now is that automation will soon replace unskilled workers, and the only way to survive in the new economy will be with a college degree. In both cases, the assumptions are only true if re-enforced by those doing the hiring. Newspaper editors notoriously demanded that applicants have a journalism degree, then paid starting wages that were lower than what was earned by most laborers.

My journalism degree gave me a grounding in the ethics and history of the profession. And, my bachelor’s degree provided a basic understanding of the arts and sciences. But, almost everything I know about being a reporter and editor was learned in the newsroom, not the classroom. And, I suspect the same is true with a lot of other professions.

I don’t regret going to college. My years at the University of Northern Colorado were a time of personal and social growth. I made friendships that still remain. And, tuition and fees were low enough when I enrolled in 1976 that it was a fair deal, even if my college degree was in a low-paying profession.

In 1980, the year before I graduated, the average annual cost (adjusted for inflation) for tuition; fees; and room and board for a full-time student at a four-year college was $10,231. My costs as an in-state student at UNC were far lower than that. By 2019-2020, the average had climbed to $28,775, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

In-state students have been hit the hardest by the increase. The cost for in-state tuition at a public college has gone up by 211 percent during the past 20 years, according to reporting by U.S. News. That’s nearly four times as much as the overall rate of inflation during that period.

There is no logical reason for those increases. Costs for proving classroom instruction have not skyrocketed.

Colleges are engaged in a self-enriching cycle in which each insists it must pay more to staff and invest more in new facilities to remain competitive. It’s most obvious in athletics, but can be seen throughout the campus. The Digital Journalism Center opened by NMSU in 2013 is much newer and nicer than anything I’ve ever seen in a real newsroom.

The problem with efforts like those by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to cover tuition costs for all in-state students, or the recent announcement by President Joe Biden forgiving student loans for low-income borrowers, is that they only encourage colleges to keep spending more.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.