I did not watch the Super Bowl a few weeks ago, though I was soon thereafter made aware of the Dodge commercial featuring the late Paul Harvey and the long-lost American spirit. (Side note to ad-men: TRUTH SELLS.) It served as a personal reminder of how blessed I am to come from such a deep and distinct line of farmers. I am proud to share this heritage with generations past and will be proud to share it with generations to come. I am grateful that the work ethic of the American farmer courses through my veins, because my children – Lord help them – are going to need all the “American farmer ethic” they can get to fall back on when I tell them that Mommy and Daddy cannot afford to send them to college.
For those who have been living under a rock, college has grown quite expensive in recent years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2012 the average cost of one year at a 4-year public institution (tuition, room/board, and fees) was $16,789. Meanwhile, for the past 30 years the average cost of tuition has increased an average annual rate of 3.49%. Using this average for projection purposes, this means that if I were to wake up tomorrow with a newborn child of my own, and if 18 years from now s/he ends up attending college, I could expect to pay $30,977 for my child’s first year of college.
Going forward with this line of thinking, let’s presume that my child is a wunderkind, and finishes in 4 years flat. Starting at $30,977, with 3.49% annual increase in tuition, each of her four years would look like the following: $32,058 (sophomore); $33,176 (junior); $34,333 (senior). All told, for my child to attend a 4-year public institution, I will end up paying $130,544 (if that number seems obscene or unbelievable, swing by my office and we can chat). Presently, if tuition rates were to freeze, a 4-year public education would cost $70,428 (on average). In 18 years, a 4-year degree at a public college or university can be expected to increase in price by $60,116. Something has to give.
Please take a moment to study the following graph, which shows the ever-upward trajectory of the average 4-year public education, projections included using the 3.49% average annual increase:
This, of course, is predicated on the possibility that nothing changes. If tuition continues to rise uninfringed, and the masses continue to buy into the higher-education financing system, then the prices outlined above will indeed come to pass, if not grow worse still. The future, however, is not written in stone. In recent years, there have been great strides taken toward alternatives to the brick-and-mortar 4-year university. Online education, though still in its infancy, is showing signs of increasing viability as a means of preparing the next generation to compete in the national and international job market. With premium brand institutions such as Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford all beginning to contribute to the world of online higher education, it is likely that in time many other schools will follow suit. Providing a cheaper alternative might just be the necessary shot in the arm to drive down the costs associated with the traditional higher education experience, or transform the system entirely. Though certainly not where it needs to be, online education shows many signs of promise.
The other decidedly grim possibility is that the bubble will burst; that the higher-education financing system will collapse on itself sans any other system to replace it. We must be honest with ourselves – the present trajectory of higher education is unsustainable. Students are paying ever more while learning measurably less as the university increasingly becomes a product to be consumed en masse, catering to the lowest common denominator; professors are doling out A’s to a self-entitled generation, leaving them ill-prepared for the actual challenges that await them in the real world, all so that the university may boast of increased graduation rates; these same students graduate into a world unwilling to cater to their desires, leaving them to tend to their wounds when they should be kicking down doors.
The bubble will burst. It is only a matter of time, and when it does we had better be prepared to pivot.
 Note that all dollar amounts in this piece reflect the cost of tuition, room and board, and any auxiliary fees.