College students in California are protesting, but not against a war or for a social cause. Rather, they are motivated by the threat of a 32% tuition increase. While this large of an increase is unusual, college tuition generally has increased across the nation.
Some of the tuition increases are due to what are clearly legitimate factors: colleges have had to pay more for energy, maintenance, building, equipment and salaries, thus creating a need for more income. Of course, there are also concerns that the tuition hikes are due to other factors. To be specific, schools (like all organizations) suffer from administrator bloating (that is, more and more administrators are hired and are paid ever increasing salaries), corruption, and waste. Because of such factors, the operating expenses of schools increase in ways that do not add to the quality of education. Clearly these sorts of costs should be reduced. Equally clear is the fact that these costs are often the hardest to reduce. After all, the folks who make most of the budget decisions are administrators and they generally do not decide to reduce their salaries or their numbers. Corruption and waste are also notoriously difficult to weed out.
Not surprisingly, one proposed way to counter tuition increases is to increase the federal and state aid to students. While this would lower the financial burden for these students, it merely moves the financial burden rather than reducing costs. After all, the federal and state money has to ultimately be provided by taxpayers (loans from China and other places do have to be paid back eventually). To make matters worse, the more federal and state money that is available, the less incentive schools have to reduce tuition. This is because this government money (that is, taxpayer money) shifts the financial pain and dilutes it across the tax paying population.
While I do think that government support for students can be an excellent use of tax money (far better than spending on pork, bailouts, and other spawns of corruption), it is important to be careful with this money. After all, if such money enables schools to get away with tuition hikes, then the students who lack such aid will be in even more dire straits. What is needed is a combination of government aid and a reform of the schools to lower costs.
While education is generally the best investment a person can make, this does not justify overpaying for education. As such, it is wise to shop around in order to find the best education for the cost. My own experience in education is that while the high priced schools do provide students with a degree of prestige, the quality of education is not always directly proportional to what the student pays.