College costs more when it’s high school, too.

One of the forces that has driven a cost increase in higher education is the necessity to serve unprepared students.

Here are a couple facts from an NPR story:

  • Students borrow a total of $380 million a year to take remedial / high school-level courses in the first year of college.
  • Wealthier unprepared students attending private colleges spend about $12,000 a year for remedial education.
  • 45 percent of those in remedial courses are from middle- and high-income families.
  • Students who take remedial courses are 75 percent less likely to complete college.

It seems that at least part of the cost of college results from the attempt to make sure students are prepared to succeed academically…even if they do not actually end up succeeding academically.

There is a similar cost-driving cause from the social/personal side. I once asked a student life administrator with more than 30 years of experience in the industry what had changed in his tenure. He noted that colleges do a lot more to try to keep students than they did 20 and 30 years ago. Once upon a time, you expected a low retention rate; not everyone was cut out for college, and you expected some people to have problems in their lives that made college not the right option for them at the time. But now, administrators spend a lot more time (therefore, colleges spend a lot more resources) helping students work through personal problems, resolve roommate disputes, and enjoy themselves.

None of this is necessarily wrong, and a college that depends on enrollment has an incentive to do what it must to keep students happy and keep students academically qualified to attend. But if a student’s success in college requires additional courses to get him ready for freshmen courses and lots of one-on-one attention from professionals to help him get along and have fun so he does not drop out, then there is a cost associated with that.

Meanwhile, who pays the least for college? Those who spend the least time there. Although many students need remedial courses, others come to college just a few credits shy of becoming a junior, thanks to AP credits and early college programs. Some students graduate from college only 2 or 3 years after high school. Therefore, the more prepared a student is for success in college, the less time (and money) they will spend there.

Therefore, to the many ideas for cutting college expenses, I would add that we should serve those in K-12 education in such a way that when they arrive at college, they are prepared for college-level courses and can get along with roommates and classmates who are much different than they are.

This, of course, would involve more costs at lower levels of education.

There are no free lunches, apparently.