Divey League

As high-school seniors begin sifting through their college-acceptance letters this month, their proud parents will wonder, Can we actually afford this? Just as the humble 75-cent cup of coffee metamorphosed into the $4 Starbucks latte, and a pair of dungarees now costs $200, between 1990 and 2008, average college tuition and fees rose 248 percent in real dollars, more than any other major component of the Consumer Price Index. In 2008, the average four-year public university cost more than one-quarter of the median American household income, making college the great unaffordable necessity of middle-class life. All of which was still perhaps tolerable, until the recession put families out of work and their home equity underwater. In 2009, over a million more federal financial-aid applications were filed than the year before.

In the absence of any sort of useful metric about what college students are learning and which factors are most important in ensuring that students go on to lead productive lives, competitive-minded parents get distracted by a perks war. So there are rock-climbing walls at Middlebury, organic meals at Yale, and sleek new leed-certified campus expansions, like the ones Columbia and NYU are embarking on, all of which will help the schools with their vaunted U.S. News & World Report rankings too.

But the increasingly resortlike facilities are costly consumer enticements that have nothing to do with why the kids are there in the first place. “We’re spending $16 million on a brand–new dining hall which will not improve the quality of education one little bit,” says Paul LeBlanc, president of the private Southern New Hampshire University. “When families come to an open house, they spend a lot of time complaining: ‘This is really expensive, and by the way do you also have singles available for freshmen, and do you have a food court in that new dining hall?’ We’re in an arms war.”

It wasn’t always this way. In the early-nineteenth century, writes Frederick Rudolph in The American College & University: A History, the scions of the country’s elites slept in barracks and dined on “wormy salt pork,” and their main extracurricular was chapel, where they spent as much time as they did in class. Unpleasant? Perhaps. But also far less expensive. “There is a trickle-down that occurs everywhere,” says Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability. “It sets a tone that affects the whole industry.”

One exception is Cooper Union, which, since its founding in 1859, has charged students no tuition. The college supports itself with prudent employment of the prime Manhattan real-estate resources bestowed upon it by founder Peter Cooper, an industrialist and autodidact who believed that education should be “free as water and air.” It does this despite having an endowment only a third the size of, say, Amherst, which charges $48,400 annually for tuition and room and board. Cooper’s president, George Campbell, says the school’s mission necessitates frugality. “We don’t have a gym, swimming pools, climbing walls, not even a major cafeteria. We do have a dormitory, but it only houses the freshmen. We’re all about academics here. We’re not for students interested in the traditional college experience of the campus and all these kinds of amenities that I think in many ways have gotten out of hand and are driving the cost up.”

The larger question could be whether it’s possible to reunite frugality with prestige in a new breed of higher education—one that relies on achievement, not new geranium beds. For customers of Rodarte’s Target line or a McDonald’s cappuccino, it may just be the perfect recession-era combination.

Anya Kamenetz is the author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.

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Divey League