Ross Mackenzie

The cost of running the family car is all over the news these days, and rightly so. But what about the cost of a college experience for Melissa and John?

Many colleges are bursting with bucks from alums, from the feds, from parents — and never mind that if Melissa and John (18, and now, you know, legally “adults”) don’t want Mom and Dad to see their grades, then hardly any college will show them.

The numbers can be staggering. More than 60 colleges have endowments exceeding $1 billion — with Harvard ($35 billion) and Yale ($23 billion) leading the way.

In addition, the federal government awards colleges an avalanche of grants, tax credits, deductions, and subsidized loans (for which the nation’s colleges paid D.C. lobbyists, over the past 10 years, $602 million in fees). All these incentives totaled about $94 billion in 2007 — all of them on the revenue side. Nowhere do incentives encourage colleges to hold down expense-side costs.

And so costs go up — for utilities, libraries, health care and arenas for the darlings to sweat in. Oh, and for faculty and administrator salaries. Profs are paid more to teach fewer hours. Compared with the mid-1970s, the number of university administrators per student has doubled. And in 2006, at least 120 college presidents made half-a-million dollars annually — and this because their principal assignment is neither to cut costs nor to save money, but to hit up alums for cash.

Then there is the matter of tuitions: They keep soaring to pay those soaring costs.

Since 1983, the price of keeping colleges running has outpaced the Consumer Price Index by 50 percent. Yet the tuitions colleges charge have climbed far faster — by a factor of 5. At D.C.’s George Washington, for example, during the past 25 years tuition for full-paying students has gone up 270 percent.

For Melissa and John, $60,000 in tuition, room, and board for one year of a prestige college — in after-tax dollars — is not uncommon. Despite college aid, private scholarships, and billions annually in federal subsidies, out-of-pocket net average tuition increases paid by students and their parents during the past decade exceeded inflation by 28 percent at public colleges, and by 33 percent at private ones.

Offers of fully paid tuitions, on a need-blind basis, are now sometimes possible, yet from just a few of the highest-end schools. Such arrangements combine with government handouts to raise the college premium — encouraging lesser-endowed schools not to cut tuitions but raise them because of insufficient motivation to hold down expenses.

Ross Mackenzie

Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.

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