Higher Ed: What Are You Paying For?


As we navigate through the pandemic, and as more schools make the shift to online learning, the questions about the cost of Higher Ed are rising to the top.

Schools are faced with…

  • financial repercussions with campus closures.
  • shifts to a new learning model.
  • requirements of online services.
  • reductions of auxiliary revenue streams,
  • the potential of enrollment drops.

Families are requesting money back or a lower tuition because the campus aspect is being taken away. Everything that they invested in was centered around the student’s experience. ‘All’ that digital learning is giving to them now is knowledge. 

My quick disclaimer: I am not saying that the cost of higher ed is justified, but it is not as simple as “I need my tuition back because the model of education has shifted online.” 

Three Real Issues to Address:

  1. What does tuition go toward?
  2. What are parents and students really paying for? 
  3. Is the cost justified?

While they are separate questions, the points in this article will shed light on all three.

Parents Are Willing to Pay

“But the ultimate driver of cost is the sheer number of people vying for a college education.” – Richard Vedder, distinguished professor of economics emeritus at Ohio University [1] 

Is higher ed expensive? Yes. 

However, we live in a supply and demand world where you have the freedom to attend or not. No one is requiring you to pay the tuition for a product that you do not feel is worth it. You have a choice to attend more cost-effective institutions.

An article by Higher Ed Insider indicates:

The prospective students and families that colleges and universities recruit typically have no idea the actual cost of an education until long after they’ve chosen where to apply. That often leads them to rule out institutions with costs they could have afforded, but prices they could not.” [2]

The reality is that you are paying for the brand, experience, and social economics stature to get through the gate check for the career world. Here is what folks need to understand before you ask for a tuition refund.


Running a campus is not cheap. Campuses are mini cities with infrastructure and resources to provide its services. 

In a story in the Atlantic, Amanda Ripley articulates:

“It turns out that the vast majority of American college spending goes to routine educational operations — like paying staff and faculty”. [3]

With that context, part of tuition is like a community’s tax bill to cover the cost of the city. The cost will not necessarily disappear when it is closed. They will not refund taxes for closed community centers or parks due to the pandemic. 

Like citizens, students are paying for the college, not the specific services. If they feel that a city is not providing value for their tax money, many move. Students can do the same if they do not find the school’s worth and value.

Campus Support Activities

Campuses still have to support a variety of academic activities—pre-admission, academic lifestyle, student/learning management/engagement systems, resources—that require an organizational structure in place to manage it. Although they have been inefficient for years, they are still in place and used in an online experience. 

Do not forget about the robust support staff that manages the students’ journey through various offices—admissions, registrations, bursars, advising, financial aid, and other college departments. 

According to Business Insider:

“College is expensive for many reasons, including a surge in demand, an increase in financial aid, a lack of state funding, a need for more faculty members and money to pay them, and ballooning student services.” [2]

Not only do you have to recognize that the infrastructure to maintain a campus is complex and expensive, but it also requires dedicated leadership and staff to manage and maintain every aspect beyond the knowledge layer that students experience.  

Overvaluing the What

The education content that you actually experience in a classroom is not drastically different from one campus to another. The reality is that quality faculty are at many campuses no matter the tier or ranking. The knowledge within standard courses can be disseminated in a related loop annually.  

The WHAT factors such as classes, courses, faculty, climbing walls, football team and modern dorms are at many schools. Parents and students have choices to pay for the WHAT or the WHY. If you are unhappy with a high tuition, you can change colleges as I mentioned earlier. However, you also need to find unique reasons WHY you are choosing that college.

Academic Credentialing and Potential Opportunities

The cost of your tuition is dictated by the credentials gained from that institution. You are paying for the label that is placed on a pedestal for a transcript, resume, and social media platform, along with the use of their name to open up doors for your future. Exponential career paths are opened after you graduate from one of the big brand schools. Many take advantage of applying to an expensive college in hopes that they can compete and gain the opportunities that it presents. That degree’s value is not necessarily lessened because of how the instruction is consumed. 

So what are you paying for?  Are you paying for the seal? Paying for the bragging rights? 

Each are drivers that dictate the price. As value gets aligned and parents rethink how they spend, campuses will also redesign what they invest in. Until then, you have a choice to enroll or not, as there are many alternatives to gain knowledge. Once you can determine what you want to pay for, the decision is easy. 


  1. https://www.businessinsider.com/why-is-college-so-expensive-2018-4
  2. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/call-action-marketing-and-communications-higher-education/it-isn’t-cost-college-’s-problem-it
  3. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/09/why-is-college-so-expensive-in-america/569884/