Automobiles and college tuition 30 years later, they cost the same

Ray Stevens

September 30, 1992|By Ray Stevens

MUCH has been said and written recently about unnecessary and outrageous college tuition increases, about the greed of professors and about waste and inefficiency in higher education.

Some are calling for the privatization of campuses, for the tight-fisted control of dispassionate business people, for wresting control from bungling academics and placing it with those who know better how to run cost-efficient operations.

It might be appropriate to examine those charges within the context of that bellwether of American pride and production, the automobile industry. Let us compare and contrast typical annual expenses for private liberal arts institutions with the cost of a typical family car.

I choose private colleges because, while tuition at public institutions is significantly less than it is at private colleges, the true cost of public higher education is often disguised in state and local taxes.

Thirty years ago, when I first began teaching at a private university in the Midwest, I traveled to school in a new, full-size Ford Galaxie that cost $2,700. Parents brought their daughters and sons to school that year in other Fords, Chevrolet Impalas and Dodge Matadors, an infrequent Cadillac and an occasional overloaded Volkswagen bug. Most of the parents' cars were in the $2,500-$4,000 range, with occasional upscale models costing more. In 1963, typical college tuition, room and board nationwide was in the same range.

Today, parents typically arrive at Western Maryland College, where I teach, in Ford Tauruses, Honda Accords, Chevrolet Caprices, Toyota Camrys, Chrysler New Yorkers, Buick Rivieras and an occasional Ford Escort or superannuated Volkswagen bug. Typical full-size family cars cost $16,000 to $24,000, with upscale models costing more. In 1992, typical college tuition, room and board nationwide is $16,000 to $22,000.

Some will argue that automobile prices and college expenses are an unfair comparison because there have been so many advances in technology, in creature comforts and in automobile safety features. Besides, there are so many government-mandated requirements that the cost of an automobile is greatly inflated.

Those who know the realities of college education in the '90s can respond that government mandates in higher education are at least comparable to those in the automobile industry. In addition, modern higher education offers a much wider curriculum and more creature comforts. To stay competitive, schools have been forced to upgrade dormitories and cafeterias and offer health, psychological and career counseling. And most campuses have high-tech computer and science laboratories.

College education, like automobiles, must be paid for in full (though often with borrowed money). While automobile manufacturers must invest annually in research and development, colleges must support research by faculty and often underwrite the development of faculty and staff. As automobile manufacturers must constantly invest to modernize methods of production, so must colleges constantly invest to revise curriculum and to hire new people to adapt to modern needs and technology. At the same time, they must stick to their historic and important mission of liberal education.

Enlightened captains of industry hope to keep their employees at least slightly ahead of inflation; likewise, enlightened presidents and boards of trustees of colleges try to keep their faculty and staff at least slightly ahead of inflation.

In some ways, however, comparison must yield to contrast. Car manufacturers are using robotics and other automated devices, but education remains labor-intensive. As current struggles for funding in school systems across the nation confirm, there is no mechanical or robotic substitute for the close association of instructor and student. The real struggle in colleges and universities today is to maintain an optimum faculty-student ratio to allow for the human contact necessary for learning. To do so costs money.

Two things haven't changed. In 1963, many of the one- and two-year-old automobiles parents drove to school were ready for the scrap heap by the time their offspring were seniors. That will be true in 1996, when this year's freshmen graduate. And, in more than three decades of conversations with parents, I have never met one who regretted the investment in a child's education.

I cannot say that about owners of cars.

Ray Stevens is an English professor at Western Maryland College.

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