Letter: What really drives up college tuition

In response to Ingrid Jacques’s July 14 column “High cost of Dems’ free stuff”: Jacques misses many of the smarter, better-substantiated arguments currently circulating about why tuition has risen so much and why so many students are deeply indebted. I’ll offer one that seems most plausible to me and most of the colleagues I’ve known over 15 years in higher education:

Applying a corporate ethos to higher ed has driven tuition sky-high.

Students are led to believe that the best colleges are the most expensive; colleges must raise tuition to compete for the best students. Run by CEO-style presidents (increasingly with MBAs and JDs rather than Ph.D.s), universities attempt to out-grow their “competition,” build ever more institutes and expensive labs and luxury amenities for students who’ve been brainwashed to think college (and everything else in life) ought to be posh. “The customer is always right” is a terrible ideal upon which to base the institution that is supposed to be forming the citizens who will lead the country into the future.

Hillary Clinton’s plan may be imperfect, and there is a crisis brewing in higher education. But it stems from the notion—accepted more or less by both major parties—that everything is better as a free market. At least Mrs. Clinton recognizes that there are times when government intervention is necessary.

But increasing student aid won’t fix the cost problem. That would require a broad rethinking of how markets and public universities are related to one another, and also of how we conceptualize the young people who attend our universities. It would require trimming substantially of the administrative bloat that’s another of the factors in rising tuition. But, in essence, you can have a student or a customer. You can’t have both.

Kit Nicholls, Beacon, N.Y.