Three years ago I pondered when the first college or university would charge $100,000 or more per year to attend.
What does that 2018 probe into the future look like in 2021?
To give a little background: in that 2018 post I was looking at six figures as a psychological or cultural milestone. The post assumed $100,000 wasn’t just tuition, but total cost: tuition + fees + room/board, for residential students. It also focused on sticker price (the published prices), not what a good number of students actually pay after various discounts.
To make the projection I did some back of the napkin math with inflation calculators to do some really basic extrapolation. I estimated that, roughly, the first time a campus broke that $100,000 barrier would be academic year 2029-2030.
So far things seem to be proceeding towards that date. The most recent article on the most expensive American campuses I found offers these at the top price points:
University of Chicago $81,531
Columbia University $79,752
Harvey Mudd College $79,539
Northwestern University $78,654
Barnard College $78,044
Scripps College pay up to $77,588
Brown University $77,490
University of Southern California $77,459
University of Pennsylvania $77,264
Dartmouth College $77,152
PrepScholar offers a similar list. So the most pricey institutions are in the upper 70-thousands, with one breaking the $80K threshold. For comparison’s sake, when I first posted on this idea in 2018,
some of the most expensive institutions in the United States, like Harvey Mudd, Columbia, University of Chicago, or Sarah Lawrence [are] best positioned to crack that number. Depending on which webpage one reads, their total cost is, as of this writing, somewhere in the $60,000s.
From the 60,000s into the upper 70,000s we’ve gone in three years. It looks like the top are proceeding on schedule. We might expect them to all explore the 80,000s for the next few years, then rise up into the $90K band, and then into six figures.
What would power such a continued rise? To begin with, each of these institutions is expensive to run, between credentialed faculty, extensive services, and significant physical plants. Further, each maintains an elite reputation, which in the American setting means high prices. Since economic inequality continues to rise, these colleges and universities can continue charging top dollar to the richest families and using that income to support discounts for the rest.
Yet recall that extrapolations are very crude tools, useful as a first approximation and starting point. We can imagine various ways for the 2029-2030 event not to occur. The mental barrier of crossing into six digits could prove too daunting, especially for younger populations less enamored of high capitalism, in which case we could see total prices piling up in the 90s.
Alternatively, state and/or federal governments could change course, as Chris Newfield calls for, and start expanding their support to higher education. The Biden proposal for two years of free community college tuition, while not a direct challenge to the Columbias on our top list, might be a first step in this direction. That could pause the rise in public university prices and also nudge private institutions to try competing more on price, including published fees.
It’s also possible that the long-heralded popping of a higher ed bubble comes to pass, and the entire pricing structure sags downwards.
And we shouldn’t skip the possibility that my 2029-2030 target is too conservative. One or more colleges or universities could cross the $100,000 threshold before that academic year, as Mike Richichi wrote. The accelerating wealth of the richest families could inspire more ambitious price setting. Campus leaders might deem $100K to be a signal of supreme academic prestige and/or argue that it is – literally – the price (some have) to pay in order to support enrolling everyone else at discounts. Campus costs are likely to keep rising, as John Sener pointed out. They could also soar for all kinds of reasons, including damaging legal settlements, already ballooning health care costs, and accounting mistakes. It’s also possible that climate change could drive costs up, if a campus commits to major mitigation efforts (building a seawall, extensive renovation or construction) or suffers badly from weather damage caused or worsened by the changing climate.
I’ll try to check in on this topic same time next year, and so on.
What do you think? Are you seeing signs of the $100,000 threshold coming closer?
(photo by Adam Tinworth)