January 9, 2017

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE, COST-HIDING EDITION: How University Costs Keep Rising Despite Tuition Freezes: Ballooning fees are leaving some students feeling nickel-and-dimed.

At a time when public anger is laser-focused on tuition charges that are rising three times faster than inflation, something less well understood has actually been largely responsible for pushing up the cost of college: fees.

Think tuition is high? Now add fees for student activities, fees for athletics, fees for building maintenance, fees for libraries—even fees for graduation, the bills for which often arrive just as students and their families thought they were finally done paying for their higher education.

All are frustratingly piled on top of a long list of expenses beyond tuition that many people never plan for or expect, or that can’t be covered by financial aid—sometimes forcing them to take out more and more loans, or quit college altogether.

“It was, like, what is this?” Ann Roach remembered thinking as she kept getting billed for fees when her oldest son went to the University of Dayton. “It’s like buying a car. You think you have a price, and then they tell you, ‘Here’s a conveyance fee, or here’s a fee for $200 to put the license plates on.’ Nobody told us about these.”

Fees nationwide continue to increase even faster than tuition—often covering the same things but letting institutions claim tuition hikes are slowing. Now, however, in response to anger from parents and students, and pressure from legislatures, or for marketing reasons in a time when they’re struggling to attract applicants, a few universities and colleges are pledging to make them more predictable or even drop them altogether. And the resulting decline in borrowing and dropout rates on those campuses suggest the significant toll that fees were taking on their students.

They are a lot like car salesmen, when you get right down to it. Well, except that cars have gotten steadily better over the past several decades, whereas the quality of higher education has actually declined.

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