University of Vermont

Delilah A. Poupore/"The Rising Cost of Higher Education"

The Rising Cost of Higher Education: Whose Fault is It?

Delilah A. Poupore

In response to the dramatic rise in cost of higher education since 1980, we must do more than ask, "Whose fault is it?" We must look at the problem from a structural level and ask, "What values has higher education adopted that are influencing the rising cost?" A Marxist critique will show how the liberal-functionalist ideologies of meritocracy, competition, and the free market have contributed to the rising costs. The article will conclude with assumptions to consider so policy decisions will not stem from and perpetuate liberal-functionalist values that lead to more rising costs in higher education.

I must admit when I initially approached the problem of the rising cost of higher education, I asked, "Whose fault is it?" As a student affairs professional, perhaps defensive of my "turf" in the university, I began by attempting to discern if the fault lay with faculty who are doing more research. I was also concerned that it might be the fault of student affairs administrators for increasing our ranks and offering expanded services. I even thought it might be the fault of students demanding more services and financial aid.

While faculty, administration, and even students have contributed to the rise in costs of higher education since 1980 (Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, 1996), the problem must be examined beyond simply assinging blame. The deeper question is, "What kind of structures and values has higher education adopted that are influencing the rising costs?" I will argue that higher education has adopted the values of liberal-functionalism; and those values are contributing to the rising costs.

I will begin by discussing the phenomenon of the rising costs of higher education. I will then describe the liberal-functionalist paradigm, followed by a critique through a modified Marxist lens. Next, I will describe how liberal-functionalism has contributed to the rising costs of education. Finally, I will conclude with a discussion of assumptions that require further analysis so future policy decisions regarding the costs of higher education can reflect more egalitarian purposes.

The Rising Costs of Higher Education

The tuition and fees associated with higher education have risen drastically since the early 1980s, and these increases have outpaced the rate of inflation (Shea, 1993). Among western states, tuition and fees at public four-year institutions have increased 116% between 1986 and 1996 while the median family income between 1986 and 1994 increased only 45%. Fees for the California system have jumped 235% in the past ten years (Eng & Heller, "State schools grow").

One reason for the rising costs seems to be that colleges and universities have moved to more research oriented missions. Leslie and Rhoades (1995) hypothesize that universities with more complex missions that include research actually cost more to administer. Interestingly, the heightened emphasis on research has led to faculty spending less time teaching. Reports show faculty may be spending 2/3 less time teaching now than in the past (Heller & Eng, "Why college costs").

Leslie and Rhoades (1995) also suggest that the time faculty spend doing research and teaching may necessitate increased professional administrative positions. The number of administrators has grown nearly four times the rate of enrollment since 1980: students have increased 28% while the administration has increased 83% (Heller & Eng, "Why college costs"). Since 1980, 90 new graduate programs in higher education administration have begun, further demonstrating the increase in the field of administration. The increase in services and the professionalization of administrators in the university are arguably adding to the rising costs of higher education.

Another reason for rising costs is the "Chivas Regal phenomenon" (Heller & Eng, "Why college costs"). According to this theory, elite higher education institutions began raising prices in the 1980s. At that time, American college-goers began to equate quality with price (analogous to customers showing a preference for the expensive, name-brand liquor, Chivas Regal). Anecdotal evidence suggests other colleges and universities actually raised their prices to appear to be "like institutions" or to be "in the same league" with the Ivies.

This tendency to compare and compete with like institutions, called "norming" (Leslie & Rhoades, 1995), is part of the problem. As elite institutions raised tuition throughout the 1980s, they were suddenly able to provide enhanced resources and services. In order to compete for students, it became important to provide more extravagant services. By the end of the 1980s, this competition left higher education institutions with exorbitant tuitions and concerns about the ability to pay for the enhanced services and resources on campus.

Some institutions were able to respond to the rising costs of higher education by increasing financial aid. However, most institutions changed the way they packaged aid by offering more loans instead of grants. Ironically, this came at the same time as cuts in federal aid (Eng & Heller, "State schools grow"). This left many students unable to finance their education through grants or the low-interest loans traditionally offered through federal programs. Therefore, while tuition was rising at most institutions faster than the rate of inflation, even fewer students were able to afford a college education because of the increased expectation to encumber substantial loans.

One response to this phenomenon suggests that students should attend lower-cost institutions, such as community colleges, because students can save nearly half the cost of tuition. The number of students attending community colleges for the first two years of the their college education has risen (King, "Beating high college"). Yet, there are problems with suggesting that poorer students should attend less expensive or two-year institutions, which I will describe in the Marxist analysis.

Contrasting Liberal-Functionalism and Marxism

In order to provide a thorough analysis of the rising costs of higher education, I will begin by describing liberal-functionalist values that influence decisions within higher education. I will then provide a Marxist critique of liberal-functionalism to show how liberal-funtionalism contributes to the rising costs of higher education.


Ryan and Sackrey (1996) describe the liberal-functionalist view of class relations such that the:

class order represents relationships that are potentially, if not actually, a harmonious and rational social division of labor; this division serves the common good better than any other division; and, significantly, entry into all social classes is open to everyone, depending upon talent and motivation. (p. 102)

Liberal-functionalism describes a social structure in which all can rise to an economic level reflective of their talent and motivation, once they are provided equal opportunity. This ideology is evident in the functioning of higher education. For example, students capable of higher education are accepted into institutions based upon their talent and motivation. Once in college, the most intelligent and determined students will rise "meritocratically" to the top. Their position at the top of the hierarchical ladder will provide them with prestige and power, and this will be rationally justifiable to those who are on lower rungs of the ladder. The liberal-functionalist view also holds that a "free market," that is, a competitive social structure unencumbered by government intervention, is necessary in order for society to be able to reward the most talented and tenacious (Fischer, et al., 1983, p. 5-6). Fischer et al. argue that meritocracy and competition are rooted in "American individualism" (p. 207), which perpetuates the idea that it is not social structures or circumstances that lead to economic success or failure, but only individual effort.

The liberal-functionalist view maintains that higher education helps individuals rise from their economic situation to greater financial comfort, prestige, and power depending upon their ability to learn and to apply their skills. Further, this is a meritocratic hierarchy and all in society benefit by those at the top having increased responsibility, power, and prestige.

Marxist Critique

Marxism provides a contrasting picture to the harmonious one painted by the liberal-functionalist view. As opposed to a social structure in which all people are free to compete for a place on the ladder of success, Marxism asserts, "People exist in classes, and these classes stand in a particular relationship to each other with respect to privilege, authority, and, ultimately power, and that the relationship between these classes is antagonistic" (Ryan & Sackrey, 1996, p. 102). Ryan and Sackrey propose a modified version of Marxism in which a "professional or managerial class" stands between the "owner" and "worker" classes (p. 103-4). The professional or managerial class "emphasizes science, expertise, and knowledge as the bases of legitimate power" (p. 104). They argue academics in the university serve as the professional class: "guardian[s] at the gate leading to the supposed good life" (p. 104).

Therefore, according to the modified Marxist view, there is an antagonistic relationship among the three classes (elite, professional, and working) with privilege, authority, and power distributed unequally toward the top. In addition, the elite and professional classes must employ strategies to justify the unequal distribution. The Marxist view suggests that there is a rigid class structure in place that does not allow for education to have a substantial impact on movement between classes. In fact, Pyle (1996), a modified Marxist, asserts that "the primary function of higher education is to recreate the class structure" (p. 75).

How Liberal-Functionalism Contributes to the Rising Costs of Higher Education

Some of the factors leading to the rising costs of higher education are a result of increased needs; other factors may be, as argued by Ryan and Sackrey (1996), "endemic to the culture of capitalism in which the university is embedded" (p. 16). America’s capitalist system is based on liberal-functionalist values, and these values have strongly contributed to the rising costs of higher education. Using a Marxist lens, it is possible to analyze the degree to which the rising costs and proposed solutions stem from and perpetuate assumptions that support an unequal class structure.

The rising costs will be analyzed through three of the criticisms offered by Marxism. First, I will show the impact of the hierarchical ladder that requires a "meritocratic" justification. Second, I will describe the harmful effects of the steep competition for a place on that ladder. Third, I will show the effect of the myth of the "free market," which rewards everyone who takes advantage of the "land of opportunity."

The Myth of Meritocracy

As explained previously, the liberal-functionalist view does not critique the hierarchical ladder that unequally distributes power, prestige, and economic gain toward the top. Instead, the hierarchy is supposedly based on a meritocratic, competitive system that fairly determines who deserves more power and privilege. The Marxist critique suggests that liberal-functionalists employ rationalizations to justify this tall and narrow ladder.

Theorists suggest the United States is particularly inclined to pursue this route of rationalization. For example, in the United States, a college degree is required for work that does not require a degree in similar countries (referred to as the "BA Premium"; Fischer, et al., 1996, p. 155; Pyle, 1996, p. 78). United States students are willing to pay for a college degree, and now a Master’s degree because it is important to be able to justify our qualifications through certification in our society.

Similarly, higher education’s move toward a research orientation could be linked to the need for faculty to justify their role in the university and society. The liberal-functionalist view "emphasizes science, expertise, and knowledge as the bases of legitimate power." Therefore, the objective "products" (i.e., research and published papers), quantitatively prove faculty’s worth. They also provide the means for justifying faculty’s place as "professionals," deserving prestige and power. The administration explosion could undoubtedly be analyzed from the same viewpoint: In order to justify the role of administrators on campus and as part of the professional or managerial class, administrators are accredited with degrees that merit higher pay and privileges.

Steep Competition

The competition for a place above others on the hierarchy is also part of the ethos leading to the rising cost of education. The norming approach described above shows that institutions base some of their decisions not on their missions, but on how they can better compete with other institutions. The Chivas Regal phenomena and the resulting competition to provide enhanced services could not have occurred if American society’s mores did not expect or condone competition for prestige.

The Free Market

One of the more dangerous components of the liberal-functionalist paradigm is the ideology of the "free market" that rewards everyone who takes advantage of the "land of opportunity" called America. Liberal-functionalism maintains that a social structure unencumbered by government intervention is necessary for society to reward the most talented and tenacious (Fischer, et al., 1993, p. 5-6). Yet, without government intervention in the form of low-interest student loans, many students are not able to afford college. According to a Marxist analysis, a free market ideology is dangerous because it actually enables the capitalistic society to blame those who have the least power and privilege for not having tried hard enough.

This myth is in place when decision makers uncritically suggest that poorer students attend less expensive institutions. Research shows the education received from a less prestigious four-year institution or from a community college could be equal to or superior to that received at a more elite, expensive institution (King, "Beating high college"). Yet, attendance at the elite, expensive institutions is linked to more opportunities following college (Pyle, 1986). Pyle argues that there is a top echelon of elite institutions, which he names "The Select 12." The student population of these schools disproportionately represents the top income hierarchy of our country. In addition, they make up 1/3 of those included in the Who’s Who books that list successful college graduates. From this information, Pyle argues that the prestige of the institution students attend, and their ability to pay for an education at that institution, may more strongly determine their economic success after college than their intelligence or drive. This contradicts the ideology of a free market because it shows students who come from higher income families are more likely to have access to the prestigious institutions that produce economically successful graduates.

Liberal-functionalist values have contributed to the rising costs in higher education. A Marxist analysis shows that students, faculty, and administrators must seek justifiable credentials in order to be counted among the elite. This leads to more expensive research missions and higher paid administrators. The steep competition among higher education institutions leads to norming in which increased services are offered solely to compete for students who are swayed by the relative prestige of institutions. Finally, the myth of the free market ignores the impact of cutting financial aid programs or suggesting poorer students attend community colleges without analyzing the impact on students’ opportunities.

Assumptions that Require Further Analysis

I have argued that there is a relationship between liberal-functionalism and the rising costs of higher education. This is not a complete explanation of the problem of the rising costs, nor does it provide a simple road map to the solution. Many have already attempted to deal with the problem of the rising costs of higher education. Three-quarters of the member institutions of the Association of American Universities report having recently attempted to reduce administrative costs (Leslie & Rhoades, 1995). Most schools are offering increased financial aid packages to off-set the increased costs (Heller & Eng, "Financial aid is eating away"). President Clinton instituted a "Middle Class Bill of Rights" that enabled tax deductions for college tuition (Riley, 1995). Yet, these solutions may be "Band-Aids" for the problem if the costs continue to rise and the competition to produce more research and provide more services continues. There are several questions that require further analysis so that future policy decisions regarding the costs of higher education could reflect more egalitarian purposes.

First, we must look closely at the missions of higher education institutions and ask, "Do the missions serve our students and our society?" If there is an emphasis on research, we must ask, "To what end?" If there is less emphasis on teaching and advising, we must ask why we have created a hierarchy of research over teaching in order for faculty to justify their place on the class hierarchy. If there are extensive services offered by professional administrators, we must ascertain if these services are required to meet the missions of the institution, or if they also stem from the competition for prestige.

We must separate the battle for prestige from the function of the American university. If decisions are made simply to compete with more prestigious institutions, costs will rise not because of a desire to meet the mission and purpose of the institution, but because of the need to improve the reputation. Businesses that hire college graduates and graduate programs that enroll college graduates should analyze how many of their hiring decisions are based on the prestige of the applicant’s institution. Ideally, their decisions should be based on the quality of education received as well as the intelligence and initiative of the student. Similarly, students should be encouraged to attend institutions that fit their needs and to analyze the "game" of prestige-pursuit they are being asked to play in order to succeed in American society.

As actual costs rise, we must also consider the increased need for financial aid. Politicians who discuss cutting financial aid should ascertain if the cuts are being suggested out of a liberal-functionalist value of non-intervention. That is, if cuts in financial aid are being rationalized by saying it is not government’s responsibility to finance the choice of higher education, it disregards the reality that higher education does play the "gate-keeper" role to the professional class.


One answer to the problem of the rising costs of higher education is to begin by asking a more thorough question than, "Whose fault is it?" The social values of liberal-functionalism, which influence the decisions about the costs of higher education, must be analyzed. We must look at how the values of liberal-functionalism have contributed to the rising costs. When higher education institutions need to rationally justify a hierarchical ladder, faculty may engage in research and administrators may attempt to justify their professionalism for all the wrong reasons. Further, the fierce competition for a place on the ladder among prestigious institutions may be leading to norming in which institutions add services in order to be comparable with elite institutions. This seems to only exacerbate the "Chivas Regal" phenomena in which students equate quality with cost and extensive services. Finally, the ideologies of the free market and equal opportunity may be influencing solutions that ask poorer students to attend community colleges, or cut financial aid programs without analyzing the impact on students’ opportunities. With the question broadened by a Marxist analysis, the problem of the rising cost of higher education may now encourage solutions that acknowledge the impact of the values inherent in liberal-functionalism.


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Delilah A. Poupore ('93) is the Special Services Coordinator for the Department of Housing and Residential Services at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She was an undergraduate philosophy major, and she enjoyed receiving her philosophical orientation through this writing process.

Last modified May 26 2010 02:39 PM

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