I’ve been acutely aware of the rising tide of complaint/whining about rising tuitions at universities over the past few years. As a professor at a research university in a relatively poor state, I am sensitive to this problem. As a father of three small children of my own that I hope to one day put through college, I am personally concerned that the continuation of current absurd rates of tuition increase will make this goal impossible.

I grow tired, however, of continued complaining about this issue that refuses to address the reasons for this trend. Alan Jacobs’ piece on The American Conservative website is just the latest example. The sighing tone of this piece, and it’s total lack of discussion of the causes of tuition increases, damns universities and their employees by implication. This is just a disingenuous version of more overt attacks out there. I am sick and tired of hearing that faculty are overpaid (we must be the only sector of the economy where paying for excellence in the labor force is seen as a vice, not a virtue) and that universities are full of fat that could be cut.

This. Is. Garbage.

You want to know why your children’s tuitions are rising? There are two reasons. For those of you worried about public university tuitions, the math is simple – state appropriations have been cut dramatically over the past decade, and universities have to make the difference up somewhere. In short, those of you who insist on paying less in taxes are the drivers of tuition increases. Considering that personnel costs make up more than 80% of most institution’s budgets, when you cut the state appropriation to a public university by, oh, about half (such as has happened at the University of South Carolina) the result is inevitable: raising tuition to cover the missing revenue, and hiring fewer faculty to replace retirees…so students end up paying more while getting less and less face-to-face with faculty.

This is not because public universities are “fat and lazy.” It’s because higher education, like so many other things in our society, has become a site of “user pays” mentality. Instead of seeing higher education as a societal good (educated workforce that brings/creates better jobs, more informed citizenry, more vibrant arts, etc.), we now see it as something that only the student should pay for. Of course, all of those collateral benefits still exist – the economic multiplier for universities remains pretty impressive – but now society gets those “for free”, as it burdens the creators of the multiplier with staggering debt, weighing them down. Actually, we probably get less of those benefits now than we did, given that crushing debt doesn’t typically engender opportunities for risk taking and innovation. In other words, all of you who think that you shouldn’t have to pay for universities or other forms of higher education because you are not using them, recognize that you are leaching off of those of us who work for those institutions, and the students who go to them – you are reaping the benefits of the university without making any contribution. This hardly strikes me as personal responsibility. If you want to pay for what you get, pay your damn taxes so the innovative class leaving universities can actually spend some time, you know, innovating, creating jobs, broadening the tax base, and enriching the community…instead of paying off crushing debt.

Now, for private universities the story is rather different. I do not claim to know the financial situations of every private university in America, and I know a good number are in serious financial trouble…often because their endowments were crushed by the 2008 economic downturn. But if you want to see what drives a chunk of the increase in the private university realm, read this article by Julia Edwards. Basically, a number of private schools have been raising tuitions because we are suckers…if it more expensive, it must be good. I have no idea what these institutions are spending their money on – though I am sure some of it is salary (if only because average salaries, in most disciplines, are higher at private institutions than public institutions). Whether that extra salary really equates to extra quality…honestly, I have no idea. I can say that in Geography, which has no graduate presence in the Ivy League, and which is dominated by big public institutions, I strongly doubt the cost/quality equation holds – at least on average*. It seems to me, then, that a lot of people are paying a lot of tuition for the illusion of higher quality, but nobody will admit that, because if we don’t go along with the polite fiction then a lot of people would be forced to admit that they incurred a lot of debt for nothing (which, of course, they did). And look at that, we are back to personal responsibility – don’t complain about rising tuitions you helped stoke when you decided that a higher price tag was a good proxy for higher quality education.

The chart in the middle of the Edwards article says it all – you can see the debt of students at private institutions start to take off in the early 2000s, as our ballooned economy enabled more people to behave like suckers and overpay for a product they assumed was superior. At public universities, it shoots up right at the end of the series, in 2009-10. Why? Because this is when the first students to experience the remarkably steep tuition hikes that accompanied the decline of public spending after the 2008 fiscal crisis started to graduate. Two different drivers. Same outcome. And to some extent, the same problem – a total lack of personal responsibility on the part of the citizenry of this country when it comes to higher education. People decided they could free-ride on college students and their families, or chose to make uninformed consumer decisions about higher education. And now people are reaping the consequences, and having the gall to refuse to look at themselves as the cause.

It’s your fault. Deal with it. And then go fix it. Stop paying for prestige’s sake. Stop electing people who tell you that you can have all the benefits of a leading public university for little or no public cost. Start taking responsibility for the things you want. Stop blaming everyone else.

*That said, I know of several faculty at private institutions in my discipline who are flat out amazing, including a significant segment of the department at Syracuse. These folks are worth every dime. But a few exceptional people at private institutions does not invalidate the larger point that most of the time the difference in quality between a public school’s and a private school’s education is less than the difference in the price tag.