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Buying the Professor a BMW

December 16, 2011 - 3:00am


Perry A. Zirkel and Jean Johnson

In a casual conversation between an upper-middle-class parent and a senior faculty member at a four-year institution of higher education, the parent bemoaned the steep increase in the cost of sending his youngest daughter to college, compared to that of her eldest sibling. Clearly intimating that the substantial monetary difference went into the faculty member’s pocket, the parent quipped, “I hope you are enjoying the car that I bought for you.”

This parent’s conclusion raises two questions -- one about rising costs and the other about faculty salaries. Addressing these questions must take into consideration various factors. First, for example, institutions of higher education vary widely. The answers here are limited to four-year public and private, nonprofit colleges and universities. Second, the sources of data vary in their objectivity and in their time periods. These answers identify the sources, which are reputable as not particularly skewed. Similarly, although not uniformly available for the same long-term period, the cited data cover at least 8-10 years so as not to rely on short-term changes.

Question 1: Have college prices to parents really risen steeply, when inflation, institutional financial aid grants, and other sources of “tuition discounting” are taken into account?

Answer: Yes, parents’ costs of college have risen, after adjusting for inflation, rather dramatically on a sticker price basis and much more moderately on a discounted basis. For example, the College Board reported the following average published (i.e., non-discounted) totals for tuition and room/board in constant 2011 dollars for full-time students during the 15-year period that ended in the most recent academic year:




Public four-year colleges

and universities

$ 10,280

$ 17,130


Private four-year...

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