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Columns at University of Missouri campus

Jesse Hall is seen behind the columns that remain from Academic Hall at the Univerisity of Missouri campus. 

The trend in college costs should scare St. Louis families. Costs have been going up — a lot — while family income has been going, going, going down.

That’s led parents to wonder why colleges can’t keep their costs under control. Are today’s kids getting a better education for their bigger tuition bucks? Has bureaucratic bloat fattened college payrolls on the backs of parents and kids? Have colleges gone bonkers on building, pampering students with plush dorms and palm-shaded indoor swimming pools?

Or have stingy state legislators starved their state universities, forcing up tuition?

First, let’s look at the problem. This year, the sticker price for tuition, room and board ran an average of $18,391 nationwide at state colleges. Adjusted for inflation, that’s up 38 percent over the last decade. The price at private colleges averaged $41,907, up 24 percent, according to the College Board.

College costs have been rising faster than inflation since the 1980s. “Students are now paying a much larger percentage of the costs than they used to,” said Donna Desrochers, principal researcher at American Institutes for Research in Washington.

Families can ill afford it. Adjusted for inflation, median household income, the best measure of the middle class, dropped 9 percent in Missouri over the decade ending in 2012, the last date available from the census.

That’s bleak, but here are some things to keep in mind:

• It’s not quite as bad as it seems. The fastest inflation has been in “sticker prices,” the published tuition, room and board rates. Most families pay less, after scholarships, grants and federal tax breaks. The real price of college has also risen faster than inflation, but not as fast at the sticker price.

• The cost increase has slowed recently, according to the College Board. This school year, the sticker price is up only 2.9 percent at state universities across the nation (inflation was 2 percent). That’s the smallest rise in at least 30 years. It followed hikes of 4.5 percent last school year and 8.5 percent the year before.

The sticker price at private nonprofit colleges was up 3.8 percent this year.

Missouri’s state colleges have been better than most at controlling costs. Adjusted for inflation, the price at Missouri state schools rose 9 percent over the past five years, compared to 29 percent for the nation, according to the College Board. The hike was over 20 percent in Illinois.

The University of Missouri cheered parents last month by freezing in-state tuition for the next school year. The curators cut a deal with the governor for a bigger share of the state’s rising tax revenue.

Why is the cost of college rising?

The Great Recession gets part of the blame at state universities. States took an ax to college budgets. Missouri cut its per-student appropriation for state colleges by 30 percent from 2008 to 2013. Illinois cut 23 percent.

Mizzou could freeze tuition come September because the recovering economy is refilling state tax coffers.

But state college costs were rising fast even before the recession. Private colleges never got state money and their prices are rising, too. So there are other reasons for the college cost squeeze.

Part of the reason may lie in a long hiring spree among college bureaucrats.

Desrochers’ institute runs the Delta Cost Project, which tries to explain trends in college spending. In 1990, there were more professors than administrators on big college campuses. Now it’s just the opposite, she notes.

The big-title bureaucrats aren’t the problem. The number of vice presidents and the like have pretty much kept up with enrollment.

Rather, the growth has been a notch below — admissions officers, computer analysts, counselors, accountants, HR bureaucrats and the like. Such jobs grew by 50 to 75 percent between 2000 and 2012.

But is this all bloat? College leaders note that administrators take on some jobs that used to be done by professors, such as student counseling. And new developments, such as over-the-Internet classes, require computer personnel. Still, 75 percent is a big boost in bureaucracy.

Although the mix of employees is different, and heavier on bureaucrats, the overall college employment headcount hasn’t risen much faster than student enrollment over the past decade. That would argue against the flabby-payroll theory of rising college costs.

EDIFICE COMPLEX

Parents who wander through campus may wonder if the academia has an edifice complex. At Mizzou, my alma mater, strollers can marvel at the opulent student recreation pleasure palace with its squash, tennis and beach volleyball courts. It beats the grubby old gym I remember from the 1970s.

“No matter what time of year, it’s always Spring Break in the Tiger Grotto,” says the Mizzou website, referring the palm-tree-studded indoor pool. “The Grotto will transform your dullest day into a vacation.” Nearby is Truman’s Pond, “your on-campus beach club.”

Mizzou is certainly not alone. The University of Georgia spent $200,000 on a climbing wall.

Actually, this is a minor part of the problem, according to the Delta Cost Project. “Climbing walls are easy targets, maybe even fair game, but they aren’t what’s behind the rising price of college,” the project’s Rita J. Kirshstein and James A. Kadamus wrote in a 2012 report.

But things such as on-campus beach clubs, big advertising budgets and the rising number of admissions bureaucrats raise another issue. Are colleges are spending too much recruiting students — and their money — as opposed to educating them when they arrive?

In fixing the blame for higher tuition, parents might look in the mirror. Colleges are raising their prices because families will pay it.

Parents are desperate to send their kids to college, knowing that it’s the ticket to the middle class. Meanwhile, government makes it easy for students and parents to get student loans. Colleges can raise tuition because we love our kids.

That doesn’t mean we’re getting our money’s worth. In fact, a growing number of college classes are being taught by part-timers, rather than real professors.

Community colleges and smaller state colleges have been cutting the ratio of full-time faculty to students, while hiring more part-timers. Big public universities have held the full-time professor count steady, but they are also hiring more part-timers for classroom instruction.

Could it be that students are paying more to learn less?

The Delta Cost Project doesn’t try to finger cost villains; it just points to factors. It seems that stingy legislatures, a boom in building and bureaucrats are all to blame, as well as college leaders who compete for students on amenities rather than price.