College tuition has increased 439% since 1984, and the net yearly cost of college at a 4-year public university is 76% of the median family income, according to a story in today's NY Times. Even community colleges don't end up being a much better deal. It's a scandal. We're pricing most people out of college at a time when middle-class income is stagnating and education is more critical than ever for career success.

What is responsible for the soaring costs? These reports never seem to put their finger on the problem - the NY Times story suggests that, at public schools, the increases are due to declining state-level support. That doesn't explain the enormous cost increases at private universities, and I'm not sure that accounts for the increase in public university costs either.

I bristle when I occasionally hear people blame faculty salaries for the problem. There is this idea out there that professors are getting rich while students are shouldered with heavy tuition burdens. Some faculty are paid extremely well, such as clinical medical school faculty, but most of these faculty members bring in more money to the university than they earn. And most professors are far from rich - a typical assistant humanities professor at a typical Arts&Sciences campus, after spending 6-10 years in poverty earning a PhD, doesn't earn much more than the US median income; such professors have a lot of financial ground to make up before they can send their own kids to college.

Life sciences professors at research schools have it a little better, but it's still not a good way to get rich. In my case, my hope is to find a faculty job after nearly 6 years of grad school and almost 4 years of a postdoctoral fellowship. I will start this job in my mid-30's, with zero savings for retirement or my children's college education, thanks to the subsistence-level 'stipends' you earn in your long training to become an independent scientist. That's ok, I'm not complaining, I knew what I was getting into, but this does mean that if faculty salaries in my field were much lower, this career wouldn't be sustainable. (And in some lower-paid fields it already is unsustainable, at least for people who are trying to provide for their children's future.)

The problem could be faculty salaries, not because professors are getting paid too much, but because universities hire too many of them. But it could be other things: administrative costs, costs of dealing with new regulations, or simply the fact that more student loans means that universities don't have to cut back on their prices. I have no clue, and I have yet to see any study which pins down exactly why the price of a college education has increased so much more over the last 30 years than the price of just about everything else.