“Let Me Talk to My Sales Manager to See What We Can Do”

Wren Building, College of William and Mary. Photo credit: Williamsburg Yorktown Daily

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

George Will had a fascinating column recently whose thesis is counter to the dominant opinion on Bacon’s Rebellion about the cost of higher education. Will cites recent research that concludes, “Students are paying less for college than they did 15 years ago.”

What is going on, although he does not use this analogy, is a lot like buying a car—hardly anyone pays the sticker price. Relying on a prevailing belief of Americans that higher cost signifies higher quality, institutions of higher education in the 1980s and 1990s began relying on higher tuitions as a marketing tool. For those applicants it wished to enroll, they offered discounts, otherwise known as merit scholarships.

I got a glimpse of this process a couple of years ago when my grandson was considering which college to attend. When I complimented him on the merit scholarships that were being offered, he and his mother dismissed the compliment, saying they were pretty much automatic for anyone being offered admission.

The large amount of student loan debt that has accumulated in recent years results from higher education minimizing its discounts by steering parents “toward having government provide the discount with subsidized student loans.” Lots of parents and students, believing the sticker cost is real, “sign the loan forms.”

This is certainly an interesting wrinkle in the ongoing discussion of the costs of higher education.