Wealth, Cost, and Price in American Higher Education: A Brief History

Bruce A. Kimball

Wealth, Cost, and Price in American Higher Education: A Brief History
Johns Hopkins University Press
United States
14 March 2023

Wealth, Cost, and Price in American Higher Education: A Brief History

Bruce A. Kimball

Colleges and universities are richer than ever-so why has the price of attending them risen so much?

As endowments and fundraising campaigns have skyrocketed in recent decades, critics have attacked higher education for steeply increasing its production cost, its price, and the snowballing debt of students. In Wealth, Cost, and Price in American Higher Education, Bruce A. Kimball and Sarah M. Iler reveal how these trends began 150 years ago and why they have intensified in recent decades.

In the late nineteenth century, American colleges and universities began fiercely competing to expand their revenue, wealth, and production cost in order to increase their quality and prestige and serve the soaring number of students. From that era through today, the rising wealth and cost of higher education have continued to reinforce each other and spiral upward, increasing the heavily subsidized price paid by students. Kimball and Iler explain the strategy and reasoning that drove this wealth-cost double helix, the new tactics in fundraising and endowment investing that fueled it, and economists’ efforts to understand it.

Based on extensive archival, documentary, and quantitative research, Kimball and Iler trace the shifting public perception of higher education and its correlation with rising costs, stagnating wages, and explosive student debt. They show how stratification of wealth in higher education became tightly interwoven with wealth inequality in American society. This relationship raises fundamental questions about equity in US higher education and its contribution to social mobility and democracy.

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