What has two eyes, one brain, and costs a quarter million dollars to educate?

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Publicly-funded education is perhaps one of America’s greatest triumphs. Education has been part-and-parcel to our democracy and the founding fathers realized early that if government was going to be of the people, for the people, and by the people, then the people better be well-educated.

The idea of compulsory public schools goes back to the founding of the nation but actually took some time to gain traction. This is likely because education was and (despite recent history) remains largely a local responsibility. Throughout the 1800’s States passed laws making education compulsory. It took some time for these laws to create a culture where education of children was largely left up to the State, sort of “outsourced” from parents.

In 1912, 72% of America’s children were in school. By 1930, this percentage had reached virtually 100%. I believe this is the main factor behind the dawning of American dominance in the 20th century. There were other factors, but the US had early success in making education compulsory, which gave us a head start in innovation and business. It led to almost a century of leadership of the world’s economy.

Yet, somehow this educational prominence has slipped, or at least has been perceived to have slipped. International comparisons tend to show that our students are not doing well compared to other developed countries. Although many of the prophesies of “A Nation at Risk” have not come to fruition, the concerns expressed more than 30 years ago are resurfacing.

Complaints about the educational system seem to flow with the business cycle and peak at times of economic uncertainty. And we shouldn’t ignore the economics: the resources we spend to educate our children are considerable. My local school district currently spends $12,684 per student per year. Some quick math implies that it cost about $165,000 to educate my child from grades K-12.  Since I have two children, it has cost about $330,000 to get them to a high school diploma. As a parent, I owe our local taxpayers a thank you.But, as a taxpayer soon to not have children in school, I have to be concerned about this level of public investment.

Take the case of a child in the school district where I live, which is a suburban district in New York State.Most students from this district end up going to a 4-year college. For demonstration sake, I picked the closest State college and closest private university to where I live. The annual tuition, room and board, etc. for these students runs $18,055 at the State college and $45,602 at the private university. I am assuming this captures the full cost of what it takes to educate a student for a year at these institutions. These costs might be paid by parents and students, or loans, or grants. For this example, it doesn’t matter where the money comes from.

Using these figures, the total cost of educating a child in our district from Kindergarten until he/she turns the tassel at college is about $237,000 for the State college and $347,000 for the private university. This is what it costs “society” to educate a child from my area, with society being a mix of tax dollars, parent and child money, scholarships, loans, etc.

This is likely an underestimate of the true costs of education. Costs are higher than this calculation for the State college, as they receive government subsidies that help keep their tuition costs down. And, there is an opportunity cost to not having the student in the workforce and contributing to the economic output of the nation until he/she is 21 or 22 years old.

This example shows that there is an understandable economic underpinning to current criticisms of our education system. At a time when we have pressed an increasing base of students to go to college, the college costs have risen substantially. That in itself is not problematic – more problematic is that the costs of college have been growing at a much faster rate than the benefits.

A recent piece by the Wall Street Journal indicates that since 2006, the cost of a 4-year degree has increased by 16.5%. At the same time, starting salaries have stagnated, and I have even seen calculations suggesting first year salaries for college graduates have fallen for the first time in history, when calculated on a real basis.

So, is this a bubble that will have to pop? I guess the definition of a bubble is that nobody really knows we are in one until it punctures. But, it is predictable that education institutions, both K-12 schools and colleges and universities, are going to be under even more intense pressure in the future.

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