Major kudos to economist Susan Dynarski for articulating what many of us in public universities see up close. In short, the reason tuition has been increasing so much is that state legislatures are paying less and less per student.
In 1988, state legislatures gave their public colleges an average of $8,600 a student. Students contributed an additional $2,700 in tuition, which gets us to a total of $11,300. By 2013, states were kicking in just $6,100, while students were contributing $5,400; this gets us to a total of $11,500.
As far as students are concerned, public tuition has doubled. As far as public colleges are concerned, funding is flat.
At public colleges, then, the explanation for rising tuition prices isn’t spiraling costs. The costs are the same, but the burden of paying those costs has shifted from state taxpayers to students.
The last point is really important. It is common to hear about rich presidents, too many assistant provosts, extravagant dorms, and the like, ignoring the question of state funding entirely. Some of these arguments have merit, but they are not the core problem (and, in fact, increased oversight demands sometimes requires new administrative positions we'd rather not be forced to create, but the paperwork is literally overwhelming otherwise). The most pressing problem is that state legislatures too often just don't want to provide the necessary funding. Therefore the burden goes to the student.
She goes on to note how President Obama's ideas about using ratings will not work too well, in large part because there is such a huge difference in-state and out-of-state tuition. If you think one state system to too expensive, you can't go to another state and get a deal unless you become a resident.
Well worth a read--I hope it gets traction.
h/t Tyler Cowen