OK, here is a little experiment. First, I Google “CPI Deflator” [or Consumer Price Index Deflator] and get taken to an app that allows me calculate how much x dollars in y year is in dollars of z year. Got that? Then I go online and look for current Harvard tuition, which is $46,340 a year [much less than Columbia, mysteriously.]
Now, I recall that when I went to Harvard as a Freshman in 1950, tuition was $600. My CPI Deflator tells me that this is $6,136 in 2018 dollars. So Harvard today, in constant dollars, costs between seven and eight times as much as it did in 1950.
Why is this? One possible answer is that Harvard offers an education today that is many times as good as the education it offered then. Trust me, that is not the correct explanation. I mean, Plato is Plato, Tolstoy is Tolstoy, Weber is Weber, and I couldn’t study Marx’s economics at Harvard then but I can’t get now either. A second possible answer is that the salary of the professors has soared, but alas, that is also not true. When I started at Harvard as an Instructor in 1958, after getting my doctorate and doing six months on active duty as part of my military service, I was paid $6,500. That would be roughly $56,000 in 2018 dollars, and although young Instructors at Harvard [if there are any nowadays] will make more than that, they won’t make seven times as much, which would be almost $400,000.
So what’s up?
Herewith, an hypothesis. It was the Viet Nam War. The war was a disaster for the powers that be in American society. It damned near ruined the Army, which was torn apart by fragging and drugs and a loss of command and control. And it tore up the campuses, disrupting the hitherto smooth processing of the elite young into the upper reaches of the pyramidal structure of jobs and salaries that defined then, and defines now, American society.
The response? The military went to an all-volunteer army, with better pay, career opportunities, and no draft. And the Academy responded by saddling students with a load of debt that virtually compelled the college fragment of the age cohort to move docilely, obediently into high paid jobs in the corporate and professional worlds. It is not for nothing that 30% of Columbia’s graduating class goes into investment banking.
When I was young, it was literally possible, with great effort, to work one’s way through college. Not now.
Just an hypothesis.