Yesterday the New York Times ran an editorial claiming to reveal “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much”. In it Paul Campos offers a simple answer to his titular question. It’s because higher education administrators cost too much.
There is so much wrong with this that it’s tempting to respond with humor, as Dean Dad brilliantly does (“As with so much of your coverage of higher education, the column is both a failure and a mess…). But because a) the New York Times is still, despite everything, “the newspaper of record”, and hence widely read; b) this argument is popular and predates Campos, and c) these are very popular and costly mistakes. So let’s take it apart.
First, there’s the classic category error of conflating “administration” with “the most highly paid handful of senior staff the speaker can find or imagine.” Watch how Campos starts with the former and slides straight into the latter:
The rapid increase in college enrollment can be defended by intellectually respectable arguments. Even the explosion in administrative personnel is, at least in theory, defensible. On the other hand, there are no valid arguments to support the recent trend toward seven-figure salaries for high-ranking university administrators, unless one considers evidence-free assertions about “the market” to be intellectually rigorous.
I thought I explained this last week. To recap: in higher education the word “administration” refers to all staff who aren’t teaching and/or researching faculty. That includes people in the HR office, librarian, IT folks, custodians, security officers, cafeteria workers, officials charged with taking care of governmental requirements, student life staff, lawyers, and more. Check the blog post I just linked to for many examples.
The number of those people has, in fact, grown over the past two generations for reasons Campos weirdly declines to engage. Such growth “can be defended by intellectually respectable arguments”, apparently, but he’ll neither summarize those defenses nor reference them. Instead he’ll leap into the rich C-suite subcategory right away. This is a fundamental mistake, and seriously weakens his argument. A handful of expensive presidents and vice presidents (say) at some subset of campuses (not all; cf Dean Dad) cannot explain the tuition rise.
Should we discuss the expansion in non-teaching and non-researching staff? Of course. But that’s a very different argument. It’s also one that rarely occurs, and gets places more rarely still, because there are excellent, not just defensible, reasons for these positions.
Second, Campos finesses away the real reduction in state support. He points out that the total amount of state funding has generally gone up since 1980. If that’s correct – and we can’t tell, since Campos confuses state and federal funding and doesn’t cite sources, as DeBoer observes – it’s a useful fact. On an intuitive level, it contradicts the widely held belief that state funding has dropped. This is the most useful nugget from the editorial.
But this is one of those situations where intuition breaks apart on the rocks of reality, or at least the shoals of data. Because while the total amount of spending has gone up, so has the number of students in those schools. To offer a Vermont analogy, if the amount of snowfall increases, I need to spend more resources (hours) shoveling. That’s why the per-student figure is useful, and that figure has generally declined.
Moreover, many of those additional students are more expensive to educate. As DeBoer explains,
Of course we’re spending more when we’re educating so many more students! And as that same report states, those students are significantly more likely to be Hispanic or black than in the past. Given the socioeconomic realities of America, we can presume that many of those students are in need of Pell grants, increasing federal expenditure.
Campos offers a different, very strange analogy to explain why he thinks this doesn’t matter:
It is disingenuous to call a large increase in public spending a “cut,” as some university administrators do, because a huge programmatic expansion features somewhat lower per capita subsidies. Suppose that since 1990 the government had doubled the number of military bases, while spending slightly less per base. A claim that funding for military bases was down, even though in fact such funding had nearly doubled, would properly be met with derision.
Let Dean Dad take care of that one: “Did the number of public colleges in America double since 1990? No. It remained almost constant.”
Speaking of Dean Dad, let him pick up a third major problem with “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much”. The op-ed mistakes a part of higher education for the whole. It:
refers [to] “public higher education,” “public universities,” and “colleges and universities” interchangeably. They are not the same thing. “Public higher education,” for example, includes community colleges, which go entirely unmentioned in the piece. That’s not a small oversight, given that nearly half of the undergraduate students in America attend one. Community colleges don’t “cost so much,” nor have they evidenced “administrative bloat,” nor do they have “seven-figure salaries for high-ranking administrators…”
This is a very, very common mistake, and people should stop making it now. We see it when people interpret the Ivy-focused Excellent Sheep as being about all of higher ed. It appears in coverage of student debt where stories emphasize expensive institutions. It comes up when we discuss public funding and leave out the significant number of private campuses. There are 4,600 institutions of higher ed in the United States, more or less, and it’s essential that we think of them in their variety, not just sampling ones we admire or attended*. Our discussions of inequality, curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, technology, athletics, residential amenities, etc. are hopelessly broken unless we take a holistic view. Call it an ecumenical higher ed viewpoint.
Oh, there is much wrong with that op-ed, but I’ll stop for now. Let me conclude on a slightly different note. DeBoer offers his own explanation for why higher education prices have risen:
Here’s why college spending has grown: we’re sending a far higher number of students to college, and the students were sending are more likely to be from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. Meanwhile, the state aid that has been the lifeblood of public education in this country appears to have declined precipitously– at least according to the people who give me a methodology and sources for their numbers.
That’s a powerful explanation, and one worth pursuing. But for me it also summons up the argument I’ve heard from many sources, both academic (voiced quietly) and public (more loudly), that perhaps America has overshot its drive to get everyone into college. Proponents of this view want us to consider that perhaps not all 18-year-olds should head to a residential campus, and that a university education isn’t a good fit for many professional development needs. Also, there are many jobs which don’t require an undergrad degree.
If DeBoer’s theory is correct and gets some traction, maybe we’ll see this too-much-college view start to influence public expenditures. Perhaps state legislators will argue that college funds would be better spend revivifying high school shop classes. And then fewer people will sign up for classes. This is one pathway to peak higher education.
*I say this in full awareness that Campos and I both attended the University of Michigan, for what it’s worth.