The Price You Pay for College, by Ron Lieber

Deborah D. Rogers learns how the privileged make college admissions processes work in their favour

April 8, 2021
putting coins in a jar representing college and university fees
Source: iStock

New York Times financial columnist Ron Lieber focuses his critique of the American way in college admissions through the lens of money and value. Based not only on comprehensive, data-driven research but also on interviews with families, admissions officers, enrolment managers, faculty and college presidents, his boots-on-the-ground analysis is both an attack on the system and a manual on how to game it.

Lieber finds that an undergraduate degree (with tuition and living expenses) costs more than $300,000 (£217,160) at most private colleges and over $100,000 at most state-funded flagship institutions. On average, Americans graduate from college over $30,000 in debt. Total student loan debt is currently more than $1.7 trillion.

Why are American colleges so expensive? According to Lieber, it’s not due to amenities such as world-class gyms, lavish dorms and climbing walls but to severe cutbacks in federal and state appropriations – and to faculty salaries.

Although the number of highly paid administrators at colleges has ballooned in recent years, Lieber finds this proliferation necessary to enforce new federal regulations. His position is, however, controversial since more administrators means fewer tenure-track hires.

For Lieber, faculty and their support staff are the biggest drain on resources. His evidence here is largely anecdotal, drawn from figures that were “on the tips of the tongues of the presidents I interviewed”. It also ignores the fact that more than 77 per cent of American college instructors are poorly paid contingent faculty. Of these, over 50 per cent are exploited adjuncts, who have neither job security nor benefits. Paid by the course, they often live below the national poverty line and receive government subsidies such as food stamps.

Still in condescending blame-the-professor mode, Lieber suggests that colleges cut costs by increasing faculty course loads, although “professors don’t like that”. He fails to consider the work involved in teaching and mentoring or in other parts of the job such as service and research.

Although the cost of an American university education is appalling, it turns out that tuition is negotiable. Prices for college, like prices for airplane seats, vary widely among students at the same institution. A school’s list price is often discounted not only by need-based loans and scholarships but also by merit aid.

Lieber breaks new ground in his dissection of this complicated and opaque system. After distinguishing between a family’s ability and willingness to pay, schools often lure desirable students by offering merit aid to compete with their peer institutions. In our own case, even though my husband and I have been professors for decades, the wool was pulled over our eyes. When our son was accepted at a selective college that we could afford, we were surprised – and flattered – that he was offered a presidential scholarship on the basis of merit. After reading Lieber’s book, however, I suspect this “award” was a tuition discount to get us to commit to this particular college rather than its competitors.

So merit aid can give even those who can pay full price unnecessary (and, in many cases, unmerited) tuition discounts, leaving less aid for poor students. Yet after his eye-opening explanation of merit aid as a disturbing practice, Lieber provides a detailed guide to obtaining it. Perhaps unwittingly, therefore, his book itself perpetuates inequality. He has two audiences: academics and scholars of higher education and parents navigating the opaque process of college admissions and financial aid. Although Lieber explains the system, his focus is not on how to make it more equitable. Instead, he ends up showing middle- to upper-middle-class parents how to get the most bang for their buck.

Deborah D. Rogers is professor of English at the University of Maine. Her history of the university, Becoming Modern, co-edited with Howard Segal, will be published later this year.


The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make
By Ron Lieber
Harper, 368pp, £20.11
ISBN 9780062867308
Published 26 January 2021

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Degrees of debt and discount

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