Mind-boggling Increase in Tuition Since 1960 Even as Students Learn Less and Less

There has been a truly mind-boggling increase in college tuition since 1960. For example, law school tuition has risen nearly 1,000 percent after adjusting for inflation: around 1960, “median annual tuition and fees at private law schools was $475 … adjusted for inflation, that’s $3,419 in 2011 dollars. The median for public law schools was $204 … or $1,550 in 2011 dollars … in 2009 the private law school median was $36,000; the public (resident) median was $16,546.”

Due to market distortions like the proliferation of unnecessary state licensing requirements that require useless paper credentials, and financial aid that directly encourages colleges to raise tuition, colleges can raise tuition year after year, consuming a larger and larger fraction of the increased lifetime earnings students hope to obtain by going to college. As George Leef notes, “long-term average earnings for individuals with BA degrees have not risen much and in the last few years have dipped.”

Meanwhile, college students learn less and less with each passing year. “Thirty-six percent” of college students learned little in four years of college, and students now spend “50% less time studying compared with students a few decades ago, the research shows.” Thirty-two percent never take “a course in a typical semester where they read more than 40 pages per week.”

People thought college was too expensive back in 1960, when tuition was just a tiny fraction of what it is today. For example, they worried about the rising cost of a law school education, and the resulting increase in student loans and debt: “The cost of attending law school at least doubled in the [past] 16 years,” “raising the question whether able, but impecunious, students are being directed away from law study … schools reported that students were reluctant to take out loans owing to ‘fear of debts, particularly during the low income years immediately after graduation.’” They could never have imagined what a monumental rip-off college tuition would be today.

Cultural factors may also have contributed to students’ willingness to pay exploding law school tuitions. Too many people have gone to law school in recent years thanks to the romanticization of the legal profession in shows like “Ally McBeal” and “L.A. Law” that make law look sexy and exciting. (Legal shows also falsely suggest that most judges are wise and that the legal system is swift and just, rather than conveying the unpleasant reality: that our legal system is a slow, costly, inefficient mechanism for enforcing often-arbitrary legal norms that are invented by judges and lawyers or enacted by legislators who frequently do the bidding of special-interest groups.)

For a fascinating discussion of how the country has been harmed by legal norms invented by law professors who dislike free markets, and by massive lawsuits launched by law school litigation clinics, read Walter Olson’s book Schools for Misrule: Legal Academia and an Overlawyered America, which got good reviews from some law professors and the Wall Street Journal.