One of the things foreigners always get wrong about the American higher education system is tuition fees. The external perception of tuition is driven by what’s happening at the famous private institutions, mainly in the country’s northeast. But that’s not even close to being the whole story.
Figure 1: Tuition by Type of Institution, United States, 2014-15
It is true that tuition at private non-profits is pretty high – $31,231, on average; though it goes much higher than that (one-sixth of these colleges charge over $45,000/year for tuition alone). Of course, discounts are rife, and few actually pay the sticker price. Net tuition and fees in this sector are actually only about $12,500. And more to the point, only 2.7 million undergraduates (i.e. fewer than 20% of the total) attend schools in this sector. In contrast, 6.6 million students attend public 4-year colleges, where the average sticker price is only $9,139 (avg. net tuition = $3,000), and 7.1 million attend public 2-year colleges (i.e. community colleges), where fees are just $3,347 (avg. net tuition = -$1,900).
But the differences aren’t simply by sector, they’re also geographic. In-state tuition at 4-year publics varies widely from one state to another. In Wyoming, tuition is $4,646; in Vermont, it’s $14,419. There are some broad regional trends you can see in the data, but they aren’t quite as stark: in New England (i.e. Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts), average tuition at public four-year institutions is $11,436; in the South and Southwest, it’s about $8,300.
This often makes people stop and think: why is it that tuition in the liberal, blue-state northeast is higher, while in the conservative red-state south and Midwest it’s cheaper? Well, the answer is that politics in the US didn’t always break down the way it does today. Back in the 1890s when the big Land-Grant universities were starting to grow, most of today’s low-tuition states were run by governments heavily influenced by the Populist movement.
Populists were suspicious of universities because they served such an elite section of the population. They wanted them opened up to the children of farmers, and to make sure that they taught “practical arts” as much as the liberal ones. These being the days before student aid really existed, the way populists gave effect to this was to order institutions to keep tuition low, a tradition that in most states remains true today.
In fact, one way to predict state tuition levels in the US today is simply to look at vote totals from the 1896 election. That was the “Cross of Gold” election, which pitted the Democratic/Populist William Jennings Bryan against the Republican William McKinley. Figure 2, below, plots today’s in-state tuition rates against Bryan’s share of the vote in that election.
Figure 2: Current-Day In-State Tuition Versus William Jennings Bryan’s Vote Share in 1896
Rather amazingly, there is still a relationship between political patterns of 120 years ago and tuition policy today. It’s not a perfect fit, of course – South Carolina, in particular, was a Bryan stronghold, and yet now has tuition of nearly $12,000 – but the pattern is clearly there.
America is large, and contains multitudes. Generalizations about its higher education system need to be treated with much caution.