President Obama has announced that he plans to address the rising cost of higher education. College affordability is a noble goal. However, in their efforts to make higher education more affordable, the federal and state governments have inadvertently contributed to rising costs. Good intentions are counterproductive precisely because policymakers don't understand the complicated forces that drive costs.
It is easy to assume that college professors are getting fat and rich off of tuition dollars. In fact, it is popular in some conservative circles to disparage academics, claiming they work too few hours and make far too much money. The Obama administration seems to be of similar mindset. When asked about college costs at a town-hall meeting in Pennsylvania last year, Vice President Joe Biden responded, "Salaries for college professors have escalated significantly."
In fact, faculty salaries are not escalating. According to a 2012 salary study by the American Association of University Professors, faculty salaries have been relatively stable, when adjusted for inflation. For example, tuition has increased in public colleges 72 percent since 2002, while professors' salaries increased by less than 1 percent. Similar trends are observed at private colleges.