Alicia Tatone

Before the automobile, before the Statue of Liberty, before the vast majority of contemporary colleges existed, the rising cost of higher education was shocking the American conscience: “Gentlemen have to pay for their sons in one year more than they spent themselves in the whole four years of their course,” The New York Times lamented in 1875.

Decadence was to blame, the writer argued: fancy student apartments, expensive meals, and “the mania for athletic sports.”

Today, the U.S. spends more on college than almost any other country, according to the 2018 Education at a Glance report, released this week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

All told, including the contributions of individual families and the government (in the form of student loans, grants, and other assistance), Americans spend about $30,000 per student a year—nearly twice as much as the average developed country. “The U.S. is in a class of its own,” says Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the OECD, and he does not mean this as a compliment. “Spending per student is exorbitant, and it has virtually no relationship to the value that students could possibly get in exchange.”

Only one country spends more per student, and that country is Luxembourg—where tuition is nevertheless free for students, thanks to government outlays. In fact, a third of developed countries offer college free of charge to their citizens. (And another third keep tuition very cheap—less than $2,400 a year.) The farther away you get from the United States, the more baffling it looks.

More in this series

This back-to-school season, The Atlantic is investigating a classic American mystery: Why does college cost so much? And is it worth it?

At first, like the 19th-century writer of yore, I wanted to blame the curdled indulgences of campus life: fancy dormitories, climbing walls, lazy rivers, dining halls with open-fire-pit grills. And most of all—college sports. Certainly sports deserved blame.

On first glance, the new international data provide some support for this narrative. The U.S. ranks No. 1 in the world for spending on student-welfare services such as housing, meals, health care, and transportation, a category of spending that the OECD lumps together under “ancillary services.” All in all, American taxpayers and families spend about $3,370 on these services per student—more than three times the average for the developed world.

One reason for this difference is that American college students are far more likely to live away from home. And living away from home is expensive, with or without a lazy river. Experts say that campuses in Canada and Europe tend to have fewer dormitories and dining halls than campuses in the U.S. “The bundle of services that an American university provides and what a French university provides are very different,” says David Feldman, an economist focused on education at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. “Reasonable people can argue about whether American universities should have these kind of services, but the fact that we do does not mark American universities as inherently inefficient. It marks them as different.”

But on closer inspection, the data suggest a bigger problem than fancy room and board. Even if we were to zero out all these ancillary services tomorrow, the U.S. would still spend more per college student than any other country (except, again, Luxembourg). It turns out that the vast majority of American college spending goes to routine educational operations—like paying staff and faculty—not to dining halls. These costs add up to about $23,000 per student a year—more than twice what Finland, Sweden, or Germany spends on core services. “Lazy rivers are decadent and unnecessary, but they are not in and of themselves the main culprit,” says Kevin Carey, the author of The End of College and the director of the education-policy program at New America, a nonpartisan think tank.

The business of providing an education is so expensive because college is different from other things that people buy, argue Feldman and his colleague Robert Archibald in their 2011 book, Why Does College Cost So Much? College is a service, for one thing, not a product, which means it doesn’t get cheaper along with changes in manufacturing technology (economists call this affliction “cost disease”). And college is a service delivered mostly by workers with college degrees—whose salaries have risen more dramatically than those of low-skilled service workers over the past several decades.

College is not the only service to have gotten wildly more expensive in recent decades, Feldman and Archibald point out. Since 1950, the real prices of the services of doctors, dentists, and lawyers have risen at similar rates as the price of higher education, according to Feldman and Archibald’s book. “The villain, as much as there is one, is economic growth itself,” they write.

This all makes sense, if we just focus on the U.S. But what about the rest of the world? These broader economic trends exist there, too. So why does college still cost half as much, on average, in other countries?

One oddity of America’s higher-education system is that it is actually three different systems masquerading as one: There is one system of public colleges; another of private, nonprofit institutions; and one made up of for-profit colleges.

The biggest system by far is the public one, which includes two-year community colleges and four-year institutions. Three out of every four American college students attend a school in this public system, which is funded through state and local subsidies, along with students’ tuition dollars and some federal aid.

In this public system, the high cost of college has as much to do with politics as economics. Many state legislatures have been spending less and less per student on higher education for the past three decades. Bewitched by the ideology of small government (and forced by law to balance their budgets during a period of mounting health-care costs), states have been leaving once-world-class public universities begging for money. The cuts were particularly stark after the 2008 recession, and they set off a cascading series of consequences, some of which were never intended.

The easiest way for universities to make up for the cuts was to shift some of the cost to students—and to find richer students. “Once that sustainable public funding was taken out from under these schools, they started acting more like businesses,” says Maggie Thompson, the executive director of Generation Progress, a nonprofit education-advocacy group. State cutbacks did not necessarily make colleges more efficient, which was the hope; they made colleges more entrepreneurial.

Some universities began to enroll more full-paying foreign and out-of-state students to make up the difference. Over the past decade, for example, Purdue University has reduced its in-state student population by 4,300 while adding 5,300 out-of-state and foreign students, who pay triple the tuition. “They moved away from working to educate people in their region to competing for the most elite and wealthy students—in a way that was unprecedented,” Thompson says.

This competition eventually crept beyond climbing walls and dining halls into major, long-term operating expenses. For example, U.S. colleges spend, relative to other countries, a startling amount of money on their nonteaching staff, according to the OECD data. Some of these people are librarians or career or mental-health counselors who directly benefit students, but many others do tangential jobs that may have more to do with attracting students than with learning. Many U.S. colleges employ armies of fund-raisers, athletic staff, lawyers, admissions and financial-aid officers, diversity-and-inclusion managers, building-operations and maintenance staff, security personnel, transportation workers, and food-service workers.

The international data is not detailed enough to reveal exactly which jobs are diverting the most money, but we can say that U.S. colleges spend more on nonteaching staff than on teachers, which is upside down compared with every other country that provided data to the OECD (with the exception of Luxembourg, naturally).

In addition, most global rankings of universities heavily weight the amount of research published by faculty—a metric that has no relationship to whether students are learning. But in a heated race for students, these rankings get the attention of college administrators, who push faculty to focus on research and pay star professors accordingly.

Likewise, the new data show that U.S. colleges currently have a slightly lower ratio of students to teachers than the average for the developed world—another metric favored in college rankings. But that is a very expensive way to compete. And among education researchers, there is no clear consensus about whether smaller classes are worth the money.

In the beginning, university administrators may have started competing for full-freight paying students in order to help subsidize other, less affluent students. But once other colleges got into the racket, it became a spending arms race. More and more universities had to participate, including private colleges unaffected by state cuts, just to keep their application numbers up. “There is such a thing as wasteful competition,” Charles Clotfelter, a Duke University professor and the author of Unequal Colleges in the Age of Disparity, wrote me in an email.

All that said, it’s also true that state budget cuts were uneven across the country. Today, in-state tuition in Wyoming is about a third of the cost of Vermont, for example. In places where higher education has not been gutted and the cost of living is low, an American college degree can still be a bargain—especially for students who don’t mind living at home and are poor enough to qualify for federal aid. Taking into account living expenses, says Alex Usher of the consulting firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, a student at a public university in Mississippi will likely end up with similar out-of-pocket costs as a student in Sweden.

Usher, who is based in Toronto, is one of the few researchers to have looked carefully at the costs of higher education globally. And much of what he finds is surprising. In 2010, he and his colleague Jon Medow created a clever ranking of 15 countries’ higher-education systems—using a variety of ways to assess affordability and access. Reading the report is like peeling an onion. The first layer focuses on the most obvious question: the affordability of college based on the cost of tuition, books, and living expenses divided by the median income in a given country. By this metric, the U.S. does very poorly, ranking third from the bottom. Only Mexico and Japan do worse.

But the U.S. moves up one place when grants and tax credits are included. “Your grants are actually really generous compared to everybody else,” Usher says. Tuition is higher in the U.S., so the grants don’t fully cover the price, but 70 percent of full-time students do receive some kind of grant aid, according to the College Board. From this perspective, sometimes called “net cost,” Australia is more expensive than the U.S.

Next, looking only at our public colleges, the U.S. rises higher still, ranking in the middle of the pack in Usher’s analysis, above Canada and New Zealand. This data is from 2010, and things may look less rosy if he were to redo the study now, Usher cautions. But still, he sounds weirdly hopeful. “The public system in the U.S. is working as well as most systems,” he says. “Parts of the U.S. look like France.”

The problem, of course, is that other parts of the U.S. look more like a Louis Vuitton store. America basically contains 50 different higher-education systems, one per state, each with public, private, and for-profit institutions, making generalizations all but impossible. The U.S. does relatively well on measures of access to college, but the price varies wildly depending on the place and the person. Somehow, students have to find their way through this thicket of competition and choose wisely, or suffer the consequences.

The more I studied America’s baffling higher-education system, the more it reminded me of health care. In both spaces, Americans pay twice as much as people in other developed countries—and get very uneven results. The U.S. spends nearly $10,000 a person on health care each year (25 percent more than Switzerland, the next biggest spender), according to the OECD’s 2017 Health at a Glance report, but our life expectancy is now almost two years below the average for the developed world.

“I used to joke that I could just take all my papers and statistical programs and globally replace hospitals with schools, doctors with teachers and patients with students,” says Dartmouth College’s Douglas Staiger, one of the few U.S. economists who studies both education and health care.

Both systems are more market driven than in just about any other country, which makes them more innovative—but also less coherent and more exploitive. Hospitals and colleges charge different prices to different people, rendering both systems bewilderingly complex, Staiger notes. It is very hard for regular people to make informed decisions about either, and yet few decisions could be more important.

In both cases, the most vulnerable people tend to make less-than-ideal decisions. For example, among high-achieving, low-income students (who have grades and test scores that put them in the top 4 percent of U.S. students and would be eligible for generous financial aid at elite colleges), the vast majority apply to no selective colleges at all, according to research by Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery. “Ironically, these students are often paying more to go to a nonselective four-year college or even a community college than they would pay to go to the most selective, most resource-rich institutions in the United States,” as Hoxby told NPR.

Meanwhile, when it comes to health care, low-income Americans tend to be less familiar with the concepts of deductibles, coinsurance rates, and provider networks, according to a variety of studies, which makes it extremely difficult to choose a health-care plan. “These are both sectors where consumers are too poorly informed and societal costs and benefits too great to leave decision-making entirely in the hands of individuals,” as Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution has written.

Ultimately, college is expensive in the U.S. for the same reason MRIs are expensive: There is no central mechanism to control price increases. “Universities extract money from students because they can,” says Schleicher at the OECD. “It’s the inevitable outcome of an unregulated fee structure.” In places like the United Kingdom, the government limits how much universities can extract by capping tuition. The same is true when it comes to health care in most developed countries, where a centralized government authority contains the prices.

The U.S. federal government has historically been unwilling to perform this role. So Americans pay more for pharmaceuticals—and for college classes. Meanwhile, more and more of the risk gets shifted from government onto families, in both sectors.

At the very least, the American government could do a better job sharing information about the quality of colleges in ways everyone can understand, Schleicher says. “You can’t force people to buy good things or bad things, but they should be able to see what the value is.”

Spending a lot of money can be worth it, if you get something awesome in exchange. “America has the best colleges and universities in the world!” President Donald Trump exclaimed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year. Former President Barack Obama said the same thing before him.

But is it actually true? No meaningful data exist on the quality of universities globally. America does have a disproportionate number of elite colleges, which accept fewer than 10 percent of applicants, and these places do employ some brilliant scholars who do groundbreaking research. But fewer than 1 percent of American students attend highly selective colleges like those.

Instead, more than three-quarters of students attend nonselective colleges, which admit at least half of their applicants. No one knows for sure how good these colleges are at their core job of educating students. But in one of the only careful, recent studies on adult skills, the OECD’s Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Americans under age 35 with a bachelor’s degree performed below their similarly educated peers in 14 other countries on the test of practical math skills. In other words, they did only slightly better than high-school graduates in Finland. America’s college grads did better in reading, performing below just six other countries, but dropped off again in another test, scoring below 13 other countries in their ability to solve problems using digital technology.

If American colleges are not adding obvious and consistent academic value, they are adding financial value. Americans with college degrees earn 75 percent more than those who only completed high school. Over a lifetime, people with bachelor’s degrees earn more than half a million dollars more than people with no college degree in the U.S. In fact, no other country rewards a college degree as richly as the United States, and few other countries punish people so relentlessly for not having one. It’s a diabolical cycle: Colleges are very expensive to run, partly because of the high salaries earned by their skilled workers. But those higher salaries make college degrees extremely valuable, which means Americans will pay a lot to get them. And so colleges can charge more. As Carey, the End of College author, summarizes: “Students are over a barrel.”  

Still, the return varies wildly depending on the college one attends. One in four college grads earns no more than the average high-school graduate. Associate’s degrees from for-profit universities lead to smaller salary bumps than associate’s degrees from community colleges, which are cheaper. And two-thirds of students at for-profits drop out before earning their degree anyway, meaning many will spend years struggling with debt they cannot afford to pay off—and cannot, under U.S. law, off-load through bankruptcy.

This convoluted, complicated, inconsistent system continues to exist, and continues to be so expensive because college in America is still worth the price. At certain colleges, for certain people. Especially if they finish. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and almost everywhere else, it isn’t.