While many of you were catching up on your pleasure reading over the recent holidays, I took a different route.

Call me a martyr, but one of the many higher-ed-related tomes I tackled by the fire on those dark late December nights was Tuition Rising: Why College Costs So Much , published by Harvard University Press and written by Ronald G. Ehrenberg, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at Cornell University. I really welcomed the nearby fire, because Prof. Ehrenreich’s conclusions were rather chilling.

You can find Tuition Rising and order it yourself at www.hup.harvard.edu, but I surmise that one of the reasons you’ve joined our organization is to get critical college-related information served up to you, so read on if you agree with my assumption.

The principal conclusion of Ehrenreich’s book is straightforward: rising tuition is the result of what he terms an “arms race” in higher education.

Referring to what he calls our “winner-take-all” society (but what more benignly might be viewed as plain old capitalism), Ehrenreich first addresses the question of why costs keep rising at America’s most selective colleges. He argues that the quality of education at any school is dependent on the quality of students it attracts. Top-notch students allow teachers to assume that remedial education is not necessary, and to therefore concentrate their efforts on the teaching of critical thinking skills.

When word gets out in academia that School X is a place where a professor can spend his or her time “really teaching” very bright kids, then that school very quickly becomes a place where the very best teachers begin to congregate. Not surprisingly then, these “best teachers” attract even more top students, which leads to more companies recruiting on those campuses, and to more graduate schools accepting students with degrees from these selective undergraduate institutions.

As Ehrenreich puts it, “this in turn provides increased impetus for the next generation of top high school students to attend these schools,” and the race is on. With a seemingly endless supply of well-qualified applicants knocking on their doors, these selective schools have no reason to unilaterally end the “arms race.”

Referring to the most selective colleges, Ehrenreich writes: “To maintain status in the upper echelon of American higher educational institutions, each institution believes it has to spend more.”

This spending might be on sleeker dorms rooms; better, more varied food in the cafeterias; state-of the-art lab or theater facilities; wireless work stations around campus or health clubs that rival the very best that Bally’s has to offer. A fall 2003 front-page story in The New York Times detailed this phenomenon, headlining it “Jacuzzi U,” and including a color photo of the recently installed rock-climbing wall at the University of Houston.

Of course, if you were to read just that newspaper story, you might be convinced that rising college prices only have to do with these improvements to the physical plant that many schools are making.

But again, that’s why you help pay me, to read books like Ehrenreich’s that take a deeper cut at the many reasons why college costs so much. Ehrenreich examines endowment and development policies, the impact of external rankings, admissions and financial aid policies, IT and library costs, parking and transportation, dining and housing, athletic programs and, of course, salaries and the impact of tenured professors who may or may not face mandatory retirement. Ehrenreich’s book is so detailed that he even devotes a chapter to “cooling systems,” an exotic topic for a professor who resides in upstate New York.

The bottom line of Ehrenreich’s analysis is that a combination of many factors leads to a situation where it is extremely difficult for a college or university to keep its costs under control. One overriding reason, particularly true at larger schools, is the lack of a central “authority” for controlling costs. College presidents sometimes lead the academic equivalent of holding companies, with entrenched and powerful leaders in various “schools” controlling those own purse strings, creating a situation where no one person can claim responsibility or authority for a university budget.

Since I’ve spent this week’s column outlining the problem, I’ll return next week with some suggested solutions. Meanwhile, as always, let me hear from you with your ideas and suggestions.

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