Jeff Selingo just published a book about this. As part of his investigation, he embedded with the Emory admissions department (as well as UW and one other school I can't remember at the moment).
About ten years ago, he published another book about this. As part of that book he spent a great deal of time breaking down the finances of college and what they mean.
Of the four books he's written, I've read two. I also have some undue interest in the macroeconomics behind things like education so let's see if I can break things down into one sentence:
"Education" is so expensive because prestige education is an inelastic good funded by insoluble debt, evaluated blindly without metrics and purchased as a social signifier by the elite.
Selingo's latest book points out that there are "buyers" and "sellers" in the education marketplace and that everywhere you've ever heard of is a "seller." Why is Emory expensive? Why are Ferraris expensive? Because only so many Ferraris can be made in a year and Ferrari benefits more from scarcity than they do from quantity.
But even the "buyers" are expensive because state expenditures on college decreased rapidly in the Great Recession and never really recovered. As a consequence, colleges and universities became more reliant on endowments whose yields have plummeted since said-same Recession. The colleges mask this by refusing to list a price until the applicant has been admitted, or even having a frank discussion about expenses and financial aid. They also double down by forcing "early decision" candidates ("early decision", on average, has the same effect on your admission as a 100-point improvement on your SAT) to contractually forego financial aid of any kind and pushing minors to decide their future during the most stressful point of their high school careers. On average, a college will spend less than six minutes deciding who to offer admission to and then require that minor to make a six-figure decision in the midst of standardized tests and senior-year anxiety.
The price paid also goes largely to facilities, not faculty, as we have no appropriate metrics whatsoever to evaluate the value of a college. No one would give the first fuck about US News & World Report if it weren't for their college rankings, which have been aggressively gamed since their introduction in 1983. Any other rankings rely on the same gamed metrics as US News so every ranked college out there is basically demonstrating their ability to massage their data. As a consequence, 80% of college acceptance is predicated on a college visit and that visit is largely driven by landscaping, student facilities and dorm life, not academics. Much of this investment happened between 2000 and 2008 and is still being amortized. The investments expected to pay for these facilities were projected to make 6% or better, and they've been lucky to make 3%.
The first generation to graduate into the Great Recession has also been demonstrating the worthlessness of a college degree. Millennials are the most over-educated, overqualified workforce in the history of America and every niece and nephew has been able to see just what a millstone a college degree is for a Starbucks barista. Contrast that with the elite class that can afford one, two or three years' worth of free internships in the most expensive cities in the world. The people who need financing to go to college are eschewing it. Meanwhile the average "endowment" necessary to get your kid into an elite institution is $2m and legacies are being actively avoided in pursuit of the healthy donations (bribes) and full-ride-paying elites for whom an education means basically "Daddy can only afford a 50' instead of a 60' yacht".
Finally, the saving grace of educational institutions for the '00s was foreign students, who invariably paid full rack rate. Unfortunately the Trump administration has pushed the growth projections every college had into decline:
Here's the reality of the situation: COVID cased a wealth transfer of approximately $3.5T from the working class to the elites. You can come in through the front door, for $2m, or come in through the back door,, for $500k-$1m.
Yet here we are, with everyone unsure as to the future, and the colleges waiving standardized testing (one of the few equalizers between the elites and everyone else), and all institutions leaning heavily towards overadmission, AND YOU GOT IN. Ten years from now? College will be for the Mandarins. It'll be the Anointed Class and only the Anointed Class. We were saying "K-shaped recovery" six months ago but now we're just at "Here’s How Bored Rich People Are Spending Their Extra Cash". If you did not grow up with a vacation home you are about to be forever denied any interaction other than waiting on people who grew up with vacation homes. The bifurcation has accelerated and one of the only ways to jump the divide will be an elite degree.
Selingo managed to dig up a few quotes about Harvard and Yale. One of the reasons Harvard took all sorts of creepy biometric data about its students for years is it allowed them to exclude minorities through eugenics. One of the reasons the college boards exist is they allow the Ivies to exclude the poors through prejudicial testing. Selingo even managed to find someone at Harvard willing to say that Harvard doesn't produce Harvard grads, it keeps people who aren't already Harvard Elites from attaining the degree.
But that's the dumb shit they had to do during our brief flirtations with socialism. Now they can just jack up the price.
Emory's gonna be a spare couple hundred thousand in five years, and a spare million in ten. There are dumber investments.