Mason Inflation

While I had some trouble in Macroeconomics, I’ve discovered that Econ. is actually vaguely interesting to me. I find it fascinating how our economic system works, why money is worth anything, etc.

George Mason University is known for its economics department—there are Nobel laureates on staff—and so I figured: where better to examine economic theory than at GMU? Who better to do the examination than a GMU student?

I decided that I would do a little Scott Bradford Private Research Project™ and see how Mason’s tuition and fees compared to the rate of inflation during the time that I’ve been a student. I used the semester tuition and fees as published in the university catalogs in the 2000-2001, 2001-2002, 2002-2003, and 2003-2004 school years.

I looked at in-state tuition, out-of-state-tuition, the cheapest on-campus housing, and the cheapest meal plan as published. After putting all this data into a spreadsheet, I adjusted them so they could be easily compared—I used the 2000-2001 school year as my base (0) and then computed the rest of the years as percentages compared to that base year.

I then did the same computation for the rate of inflation using the GDP Deflator Method (ask your local economist what that means). The graph of my results is quite telling (click it for the full size version):


Let me break this down for you a little less graphically. In-state tuition at the beginning of this school year is 115 percent higher than it was when I started at the school. In other words, it costs more than twice as much to go to Mason this year than it did only a few short years ago. On the other hand, out-of-state tuition (while much higher than in-state) has only gone up 34 percent in that time. The cheapest on-campus housing is 75 percent higher now, and the meal plan has gone up 118 percent. This is in four years, where inflation would only account for a 6 percent total increase.

To make it a little clearer what impact this has on a typical student—an in-state undergraduate student living on campus (where meal plan is required)—I put together another graph. This is a stacked area graph showing the total cost to the student I described. It shows how tuition, housing, and meal plan stack up (click it for the full size version):


Here’s another breakdown on this: it cost an on-campus in-state undergrad less than $4000 per semester in my first year at Mason. This year it will cost over $7000 per semester. The total percentage increase in cost per student is 98 percent in four years.

Let me be clear that these are all semester numbers, so you can double them (and sometimes more, like I said I’m not even counting midyear tuition increases). It also doesn’t include certain other costs, things like the parking pass (which has gone up a few times as well). It does not include book costs, which—anecdotally—seem to have increased significantly too. It is also based on published rates, which may or may not have been lies.

George Mason is quick to blame the state of Virginia and their budget cuts—fair enough—I’m not going to specifically blame either the state budgeteers or the Mason Board of Visitors. To put it bluntly, I think they’re all a bunch of idiots who couldn’t manage their own finances—let alone those for an entire university or state.

I don’t care who’s fault it is, I care about that fact that it’s absolutely unreasonable. Total tuition and fees are going up, on average, 21 percent every year while the inflation rate (that’s the amount that we all get pay raises each year) hovers below 3 percent. It’s getting to the point where people can’t afford to go to college in a country where college is more important than ever to getting a job.

There is no excuse for this state, or the Board of Visitors, to put students in a position where in the course of four years they are paying more than twice as much for any service. Even more despicable, along side the egregious increase in tuition and fees there has been a diminishing quality of service. Class sizes are skyrocketing, three people are crammed in two-person dorms and five people are crammed in three-person dorms, food gets more expensive, and professors are instructed not to even provide printed syllabi (to save money on printing, of course).

This was a topic of discussion in my Econ. 104 class last year, and the professor raised this point: If a private company were to behave like George Mason—to increase prices by more than 100 percent in four years, to provide insufficient parking (and charge a lot for it), etc.—the company would be out of business in a matter of months. Businesses canot get away treating their customers like crap.

But, he asked, why then is Mason still around?

The class was silent.

The reason? Because it costs more to switch to the competition. Virginia state colleges aren’t even required to accept credits from other state colleges, so a transfer means that you get set back on your trek toward graduation and end up having to pay more in the long run. You can ask Melissa how many of Virginia Tech’s credits were accepted at Mason. Once you’re in a school, they have an effective monopoly, and anybody who has tried to deal with their cable company or Microsoft is aware of how people get treated by monopolies.

But as state institutions, these schools claim immunity. They can lie about tuition rates in their catalogs (when increasing tuition mid-year), they can gouge us for books, for fees, for all sorts of stuff. They can do whatever they want.

And then they can name themselves after some American founding father, hire a couple of Nobel prize winners, and think they’re deserving of our respect. The GMU Board of Visitors and the state legislature might have something to learn from any old Mason Econ. 104 class.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.