Jay Schalin of the Martin Center asks why governing boards have failed to control rising college costs.

Public higher education was once America’s great enabler, permitting young people from lower-class backgrounds to attend college for very little money and to rise as far as their abilities and drives would take them.

That may no longer be the case, according to economists James Koch and Richard Cebula. In their 2020 book, Runaway College Costs: How College Governing Boards Fail to Protect Their Students, they claim that “[p]ublic higher has evolved into an engine that accentuates rather than reduces social and economic inequality.”

The main reason, they posit, is that the price of attending public universities has increased considerably over the last few decades, particularly when compared to other factors. Tuition and fees at public institutions of higher education rose 135 percent (adjusted for inflation) from 1992-1993 to 2017-2018, faster than other sectors. “Between 1999-2000 and 2017-18,” they write, “the average number of hours a typical nonsupervisory worker had to labor in order to pay average annual tuition and fees at a public four-year institution increased from 224 to 446.”

Because of these and other phenomena—such as the student loan crisis—the social mobility promised by public higher education is diminishing, according to the authors.

The authors debunk the common excuse for tuition increases at public universities, that cuts in state appropriations have forced schools to make up for the loss of revenues by charging students more. From 1992-1993 to 2017-2018, state appropriations fell by 20.1 percent—but public colleges wound up with 41.2 percent more money to spend per student (from combined appropriations and tuition and fees).

As the authors suggest, much of the increase is not because schools must raise tuition—but because they can.

They consider higher education to be a “trust market,” with the customers forced to trust that they are being sold a quality product at a reasonable price. Board members have a fiduciary duty to ascertain that they receive one. In that regard, they are failing, according to Koch and Cebula.