The college tuition bubble

Insty has a bizarre juxtaposition of two news items.

The first is about colleges encouraging students to apply for food stamps.

The second is about the latest manifestation of college tuition spinning out of control: the increasing number of colleges in the “50,000 club” (those which charge over $50K/yr for tuition).

A trip to space on Virgin Galactic. A Dior couture wedding gown. A Bentley Continental GT. These luxe indulgences each cost $200,000.

Add another item to the list: four years at a growing number of private colleges and universities.

Next year, the number of schools in the region that charge upwards of $50,000 annually for tuition, room and board, and mandatory fees is expected to more than double, according to a Globe survey of 20 colleges and universities. Just two years ago, less than a handful of schools cost that much (though many hovered just below the threshold.)

Among the latest members of the $50K Club: Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, Brandeis, Brown, Dartmouth, and Holy Cross. They join Tufts, Boston University, Boston College, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Babson, which all broke the barrier this year.

College costs have been creeping up for decades, rising faster than inflation and average family incomes. But hitting $50,000 is a significant psychological milestone, education analysts say, and a tipping point that could scare families away from applying to private colleges.

Some perspective here: a middle-aged woman colleague went to Smith in 1972, and her tuition then was about $4,000, give or take. According to this handy little inflation calculator, that’s about $20,285 in 2009 dollars. In other words, inflation-adjusted tuition at Smith went up by a factor of about two and a half (2.5). Googling “tuition bubble” turns up this article at scienceblogs, according to which inflation-adjusted tuition has approximately tripled in the past three decades at both public and private universities.

For parents already reeling from the effects of the recession, it is causing sticker shock.

“It’s the most overpriced product you could possibly buy,’’ said Jim Scannell, a laid-off financial analyst whose son, a Natick High School senior, is applying only to public colleges because of their lower cost. “It’s frustrating because you encourage your kids to do their best to get into one of the best schools, but when it comes time to go to these good schools, we can’t afford it.’’

Even worse: many graduates can never hope to earn enough money to repay student loans that big in a reasonable amount of time. Especially if the majors are generic liberal arts, lit-crit, various “studies” majors, and the like. Meanwhile, science and engineering classes are increasingly filling up with first-generation immigrants (many of them scholarship students or working their way through college) because they are too much hard work for too little future salary — expect medicine to go the same route soon.

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