Why does college cost so much? The question ranks right up there in American public discourse with "Is health care a right?" and "Can social security be saved?"

I have asked myself the college cost question innumerable times, not only as a college administrator but as a parent about to send a fourth child to college. With all that has been written about this topic, I haven't seen many straight answers. So I'm going to try, on behalf of Reed College, to give you some.

The numbers: yes, you are suffering from sticker shock
I want to acknowledge that today's price for a college education is very high. Parents across the economic spectrum are rightfully as anxious about college prices as they are about how to pay for health care, housing, or the care of an elderly relative.

According to a new report from the congressionally created National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education (NCCHE), average tuition at private universities rose almost 100 percent, from $6,665 to $13,250, between 1987 and 1996. Tuition at Reed (like that at other small private colleges) followed the pattern at a higher level, rising from $9,860 to $20,610.

The consumer price index, by contrast, went up only 42 percent during that period, and median family income rose 37 percent. On the surface, we have a clear affordability gap. But examined more closely, the matters of cost, price, and affordability are more complex.

The real numbers: the differences among cost, price, and what the student actually pays
What does a student pay to attend Reed College? Tuition alone for 1997-98 is $22,180. But only about half our students pay anything approaching that "sticker price." This academic year, 46 percent of students are receiving financial aid from Reed, with the average aid package (scholarship, grant, work study, and loan) totaling $16,844.

However, even those families who pay full price do not pay the full cost of educating their son or daughter, at Reed or any other college. "There is a general subsidy that goes to all students, regardless of the institution they attend or whether they receive any financial aid," says NCCHE. At Reed, students pay on average 60 to 65 percent of the total cost (approximately $30,000 a year per student) of their education; Reed's endowment income, annual gifts, and other sources of support account for the rest. In most states, public institutions receive additional direct taxpayer subsidies that reduce tuitions even further, often by several thousand dollars.

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