Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."





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Saturday, August 24, 2019

THE FALL SEMESTER IS UPON US


In ten days, I shall start flying up to New York from North Carolina every Tuesday to teach at Columbia.  Once again, I shall co-teach a seminar in the Sociology Department with Todd Gitlin, a very well-known radical activist and author who was, among many other things, the third President of SDS and my student at Harvard in 1960.  The course, which I designed, is called Mystifications of Social Reality, and in it we talk about Marx’s demystification of capitalism, Edwin Wilmsen’s demystification of Ethnography, Karl Mannheim’s analysis of ideological and utopian thinking, Charles Mills’ demystification of social contract theory, my account of the demystification of the American Myth, and Todd’s critique of identity politics.

At the very end of the course, if time permits, I thought it might be fun to spend some time demystifying the Columbia undergraduate education, of which they are inordinately proud on Morningside Heights.  To start, I had three bits of incommensurable data: the tuition I paid at Harvard in 1950, the salary I earned as a new tenured Associate Professor at Columbia in 1964, and the undergraduate tuition charged this year at Columbia.  Clearly nothing much could be made of that collection of apples and oranges, so I went in search of some more facts, and with the very kind assistance of some research librarians in Butler Library at Columbia and a nominal fee of $30 to compensate someone for digging documents out of the archives, I very soon had in hand the tuition at Columbia every five years from 1950 to the present.  It turned out, by the way, that in 1950 Harvard and Columba charged the same tuition.  Here is what I was told:

1950
$600
1955
$750
1960
$1450
1965
$1900
1970
$2500
1975
$3680
1980
$5730
1985
$10,280
1990
$14,472
1995
$19,730
2000
$25,044
2005
$31,924
2010
$39,296
2015
$50,526
2019-20
$58,920

But that was not terribly helpful, because over that seventy year period, the dollar has undergone a considerable inflation, so I Googled a CPI Deflator [Consumer Price Index calculator, for the uninitiated], and tediously converted all the nominal dollars into 2019 dollars.  I then calculated the percentage real dollar rise over each five year stretch [more an amusement than a labor, to quote Immanuel Kant], and came up with this table:

1950
$600
$6309

1990
$14,472
$27981
14.9%
1955
$750
$7153
13.38%
1995
$19,730
$33043
18.1%
1960
$1450
$12568
75.7%
2000
$25,044
$36,992
12%
1965
$1900
$15426
22.7%
2005
$31,924
$41,207
11.4%
1970
$2500
$16362
6.1%
2010
$39,296
$46155
12%
1975
$3680
$17293
5.7%
2015
$50,526
$55469
20.2%
1980
$5730
$17501
1.2%
2019-20
$58,920
$58920
6.2%
1985
$10,280
$24354
39.2%




   Year            Tuition        in 2020 $     % increase    Year              Tuition            in 2020 $    % increase  

The first thing that pops out of this chart is that the education offered by Columbia [and Harvard] in 1950 cost $6309 a year in 2019 dollars, while the cost of a 2019 Columbia education in those same 2019 dollars is $58,920.  So in real terms, Columbia’s education costs 9.3 times as much now as it did in 1950.

How come?

Well, the first answer that comes to mind is that the education now on offer at 116th st. and Broadway in Manhattan is 9.3 times better than the education offered there in 1950.  So I thought about that.  To be sure, I was a student at Harvard, not at Columbia, in 1950, but I made the heroic assumption that the two educations then were roughly comparable.  As I am teaching at Columbia this year, I can judge firsthand the quality of the education it now offers.  It will perhaps not come as a surprise to you to learn that after careful consideration, I have concluded that the education Columbia now offers, even though I have a hand in offering it, is in fact not noticeably better than the education offered to me seventy years ago at Harvard.  [I shall resist the old man’s temptation to say that it was better then than now.  Just as good is all I need for this analysis.]

If the education is not nine times as good, then maybe it costs nine times as much to produce.  Well, in the Liberal Arts, the principal, indeed nearly the only, cost of an undergraduate education is the salaries of the professors who provide it.  Once again, I used the bits of data I had and sought out some additional data in an effort to evaluate this proposed explanation.  I wasn’t teaching at Columbia in 1950, but I was in 1965.  I was then a newly tenured Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department, and my salary in 1965 dollars was $11,000.  This was pretty much the bottom of the salary range.  Columbia did not have to bid up to get me.  If I may adapt an iconic line from Renée Zellweger in Jerry McGuire, they had me with hello.

Eleven thousand dollars in 1965 is the equivalent of a bit more than $89,000 today.  Google tells me a low end Associate Professor at Columbia these days is making upwards of $120,000, so there has been maybe a 33% increase in pay.  Columbia has of course responded, as any rational corporation would, by seeking cheaper labor, which it happily finds not overseas, which could create problems for office hours and such, but right on the campus.  In 1950, the jewel in the crown of Columbia’s undergraduate curriculum, Contemporary Civilization, or CC as it is usually called, was taught by professors.  [The course, even then, was 31 years old, having been created in 1919 just after WW I.]  Today, all but a handful of the 62 sections scheduled each semester are taught by graduate students and new PhDs who cannot find regular tenure track Assistant Professors. 

In short, Columbia does not charge nine times as much today for its undergraduate education as it in 1950 because the education is nine times as good, nor because it costs nine times as much to produce.  Why then?

That is the subject for another post, but I will offer one simple answer that might start us on the road to an answer.

Because they can.

12 comments:

JKR said...

But that's the sticker price, isn't it? Can you determine the "average" price paid? And the loans carried after graduation?

David Palmeter said...

This is a major scandal that deserves Congressional investigation, but neither party seems to have the guts to do it.

I agree they charge that much “because they can” but that raises the question of why they couldn’t charge that much (in contemporary dollars) in 1950 or 1960. I think the culprit is the student loan program. I had a student loan at Chicago in the early 60s. That loan was funded by the University, with no guarantees except my word and signature. The university essentially was deferring receipt of tuition. Since they were doing the financing, there clearly a limit as to how much deferment they could grant.

Along came the student loan program with government guarantees to private lenders. With the guarantees, the lenders were happy to lend to all and sundry, and lo and behold, the universities discovered that this allowed them to raise tuition and fees without consumer resistance. “Yes, it costs a lot, but you can always get a loan.”

What’s also at work, I believe, is reputational concern. If Columbia doesn’t charge as much as Harvard, then Columbia would be seen as admitting that it’s product wasn’t as good as Harvard’s.

Matt said...

I would be interested in hearing Todd Gitlin's critique of identity politics. Are there any texts you can point to about it? I've read Marx, Race, and Neoliberalism by Adolph Reed, Jr. already.

Richard Lewis said...

One theory favored by more neo-liberal types is 'Baumol Cost disease' whereby human labor intensive services get relatively more expensive over time as technology makes manufacturing, communications, transport, etc cheaper in relative terms. In other words, you can automate production of toothpaste but not nursing or university teaching, so costs in health and education will tend to rise relative to the technology intensive parts of the economy. The neo liberal aspect of this is a kind of 'automatic compensation' principle whereby fridges and airline tickets get cheaper while health and education get more expensive.

Scott Alexander at the blog 'slatestarcodex' has had some exhaustive (to the point of tedium) discussions of this which seem indecisive as to whether that's what's really going on in health and education. I suspect elite hyper competition driving up prices of elite schools and giving those schools monopoly power, federal loan policies, and a host of other things are also involved.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Prof. Wolff, I would be interested in your opinion on the NYT's 1619 Project, and its ideological underpinnings.

The decision to publish such a series, and at this time, seems to me to be providing ideological cover for capital: it seems to me that readers already inclined to the view that 1619 is "America's true founding" will be influenced to support Biden, Warren or Harris (i.e., the corporate wing of the party, as opposed to Bernie), and those readers disinclined to believe the project's thesis, will be more likely to support Trump for re-election.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have it sitting on my desk but have not read it. I will take a look at it.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Wolff posts on this topic regularly, but his point is completely undercut by his inattention to JKR's point. Sticker price is paid only by the well-off. The elite private institutions have very robust financial aid for most of their students. In fact, I am surprised that Prof Wolff does not applaud this highly redistributive arrangement. The colleges and universities bump up their sticker prices with an eye to how much the well-off can pay, and then give it back to the less well-off.

Here's an example. TwinBob is a senior at Forest Hills High School applying to Harvard in 2019. His father is a high school principal in NYC, in his third year in that position. His mother is a secretary at a non-profit. He has a sister already in college. As a guess, I'll take his father's salary to be $125,000, his mother's $45,000. According to the Harvard financial aid tool, he can expect a tuition scholarship of $51,400, making his tuition payment $7,520, about 12% more than what 1950 tuition would be in current dollars. Now the following year, TwinBob's mother has to retire due to health concerns, but his father gets a hefty seniority raise, so the family income is now $140,000. In that case, TwinBob pays $600 in tuition.

Financial aid atthe elite institutions nowadays also eliminate the necessity for students to take out any significant loans.

The sad story, however, is in the public institutions. Here the sharply rising tuition costs are driven much more by legislative strangulation.

Warren Goldfarb said...

Sorry, anonymous at 6:33 pm was me.

Danny said...

'Because they can' seems like a reasonably cogent point to me, but I do not find it actually *absurd* that Columbia offers, is some sense, a better education, nine times better, than it offered generations ago. Of course the same sorts of things are going on -- teachers giving boring lectures, students skipping class. But people are more aware that in today's economy, college graduates are making more money than everybody else. I think the average, wage/salary, in real terms, has not gone up in the last 40 years, but what you are making is more correlated with your level of education. And, people are also more aware of this. And, Columbia is one of the top three universities in the country, or somesuch, and is private, and so, kind of is a vanity play. All of which I suppose is fairly obvious -- what is not obvious is that there never was a true, objective value of anything -- the more you pay for something, the more I suspect it to have been the quality of the salesman, that you were paying for.. the really radical thought here is that college is a waste of time. Not actually a difficult argument to make. What is your time worth, to you?

ES said...

I am curious why you believe the 1619 was project will bolster support for non-socialist Dem candidates.

As for the critique that you've linked to: it seems, to me, facetious to say that 1619 advances a "radical political agenda" when the general thesis (if not also all the specific essays) are entirely true.

Given the headlining claim that NYT has capitulated to the left, I truly wonder what the author thinks will be revealed if the USA were examined "by placing it in international context, by highlighting aspects of the American past that go beyond race, by raising issues of class and ethnicity and gender...." It seems to me that both the 1619 thesis on race can be true, as well as many other (leftist) ideas regarding class, colonialism, gender, etc. that constitute the origins of the USA.

For example, in the classic Howard Zinn book it is clear that white servants and black slaves often worked together in class warfare before policies pitted these groups against each other.

Is the ignorance of class structures what you think would turn people about from Sanders? Because while he is definitely the most class-conscious, he is not so to the exclusion of anything else. In fact, he might be the most progressive candidate on race also.

Anonymous said...


Given the headlining claim that NYT has capitulated to the left

No, that's not the headline claim. This is:

The New York Times surrenders to the left on race

It is self-explanatory, I would have thought.

Anonymous said...

I'm writing this in haste, so apologies if I'm re-stating what others are pointing out.

I have nothing to offer the discussion of ever-expensive elite education, but we really do need to be factoring "neoliberalism" and the contraction of the welfare state into discussions of the dramatic rise in the cost of public university education.

This piece from Devin Fergus is a good primer on the role Reagan in particular played as he and Thatcher began their assault on the public sphere and their redistribution of wealth upwards.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/09/02/my-students-pay-too-much-for-college-blame-reagan/