Colleges rake in loads of money

That was a pleasant stroll across the Ivy League campus of Brown University, in Providence, R.I.

I saw the gardening crews, the maintenance trucks, the pricey restoration work on Faunce Arch. I passed the skating rink, the president's mansion and the new Department of Facilities Management building.

As I surveyed the handsome spread (tax-exempt, sadly), I wondered, "Is all this really necessary -- I mean -- for the education of these students?"

Such subversive thoughts are hardly original.

"A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard," Herman Melville, the author of "Moby Dick," famously said over 150 years ago.

Bill Gates recently predicted: "Five years from now on the Web for free you'll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university."

A year at a university costs an average $50,000, the Microsoft founder and Harvard dropout said last month.

The Web can deliver the same quality education for $2,000.

Yet American colleges continue to float in the bubble of economic exceptionalism once occupied by Detroit carmakers.

American median income has grown 6.5 times over the past 40 years, but the cost of attending one's own state college has ballooned 15 times. This kind of income-price mismatch haunted the housing market right before it melted down.

Tuition at the private University of Southern California has risen 360 percent since 1980, to $41,434 a year.

At the University of Illinois, a state school, the annual tuition of $13,658 is six times that of 1980. For starters, the money is going to more numerous and more pampered sports teams. Duke University in Durham, N.C., spends over $20,000 a year per varsity golf player.

And these squads rarely pay for themselves. There are 629 college football teams, and only 14 make money.

Compensation for college presidents, meanwhile, has soared to corporate CEO levels. Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., pays its president $1.2 million a year.

Universities are also competing to make their on-campus experiences more like a resort than a bookish monastery. Some dorms feature granite counters, kitchens and walk-in closets. Fancy health clubs have replaced musty gyms.

What else are students getting in return for their enormous college bills?

Some useful contacts for the future and four extra years to figure life out.

And they do receive an education, though the quality doesn't seem to justify the rising costs.

Full-time faculty members are being paid more for teaching less.

Some elite colleges now offer sabbaticals every third year instead of the traditional seventh. Harvard has 48 history professors, and 20 of them are somewhere else this year.

The market will eventually recognize the out-of-whack economics of today's "place-based colleges" and intervene. Some day soon, Web alternatives will let students of modest means try their hand at a college education.

And what a great day that will be.

Harrop is a syndicated columnist.