Thursday, April 5, 2012

Administration & the Cost of Higher Education

I'm probably unwise to take issue with my friend and co-author Steve Saideman, who has posted a few thoughts in his latest blog about administration and the cost of higher education. Steve did, after all, get all the way to the Sweet 16 in Twitter Fight Club. So I'm risking picking on somebody bigger than me (in internet writing terms). If I'm lucky, he won't notice.

That said, the article Steve makes reference to, although it makes some reasonable points, is a bit of an oversimplified trope. It's become standard for both students and faculty to complain that the rising cost of higher education - which in America, as in Canada, has well exceeded the rate of inflation for decades - is largely due to the rise of the bureaucracy and central administration. As Steve puts it:
It makes perfect sense--those who make the decisions spend more and more on themselves and those who enable them.
He does go on to admit that "21st century universities are harder to administer and require more resources". And I think the bottom line conclusion is reasonable - that administration as well as faculty need to find ways to do "less with more".

But what's missing from the conversation is a better understanding of just where the growth in administration is coming from. It's easy to look at the broad numbers and assume that this is simply human greed - that university administrators are academic versions of Goldman Sachs or Enron VPs, finding ways to feather their own nests while sticking it to both their employees and their customers. That's a tempting story, especially today. But it misses a lot of the truth.

I can't possibly catalog all of the complexities that drive growth in administration in one blog post - even if I wrote a book, I'd probably miss some. But here are some of the major factors as I see them - from the point of view of someone who has been on both the faculty and administration sides of the fence:

1) Power Maximizers: Let's give the Goldman Sachs theory its due. There are administrators out there for whom "being in control" is the central motivation for them to get into administration. They seek power. And as the Realists tell us, power maximizers are never satisfied. I've worked for my share - some might say more than my share - of administrators who really are like this. These are people who will grab as much budget and add as many staff as they can to their own empires. And I stand with faculty and students in wishing that there were more effective ways of keeping such people in check. I would make only one observation to that end: this kind of behavior is, at minimum, enabled (if not encouraged or led) from the top.

2) Government Regulations: It sounds like a Republican talking point, but it is in fact true that over the last 20-30 years, government regulation (at both the state and federal levels) of higher education has increased substantially. Every time there's a new rule, you need more manpower to enforce that rule in each university. Case in point: in the US, there is a new financial aid rule that students must complete at least 67% of the credit hours they attempt, or lose their eligibility for Federal financial aid (which, at this point, is a large slice of the aid market). Who is going to keep track of that for the thousands of students we have? More financial aid office staff, of course. Every new federal or state mandate carries that cost with it. And these are not optional - if you don't enforce the rule, your students don't get aid and pretty soon you have no students. There is a real need - outside of any party's political agenda - to consider the cost of regulation. But nobody ever does.

3) The Hidden Cost of Technology: The advent of computers has made us vastly more productive. But just how much more depends very much on whether you consider the total cost of that technology. 20 or 30 years ago, most universities still kept their records by and large on paper. What computers they had were fairly simply mainframes that could be maintained by relatively small numbers of staff. Today, every university has a vast and complicated central database system. Go into any administrative office anywhere, and you will hear complaints about these systems - they are rigid, inflexible, confining, and often counterintuitive. They are also expensive, both to buy and to maintain. Universities have to hire staffs of programmers to keep the things working, and to adapt them every time something else changes (see above, on new regulations). Shiny new technology often comes with great promises of what it "could" do - but actually making it do those things costs a lot of money. I'd love to see data on the growth of IT staffs over the last 20-30 years. And again, this isn't considered optional by most folks - especially faculty, who are often the loudest complainers about how this or that technology doesn't work they way they want it to.

4) Mission Creep: Over the last 30-40 years, the mission of higher education has expanded substantially. Much of this is to the good - a college education has become far more accessible to the middle and even lower classes than it once was. But that expansion of opportunity has been accompanied by an expansion of responsibilities. As the student population has grown more diverse, the agendas, demands, and needs of the students have grown as well. How many universities 30 years ago had an office dedicated to support of GLBTQA students? (or would even have understood what that means?) How many had a Director - much less a Vice President - of Multicultural Affairs? As the understanding of "college" has grown beyond classes to the entire "co-curricular" experience - "educating the whole student" is a popular phrase - so have the resource needs of universities to grow and administer such programs. These demands don't come from "greedy administrators" - they come from students, from faculty (who frequently want their universities to reflect their own agendas and points of view), and ultimately from the larger societies we serve.

5) Sports: There's a risk here of another oversimplified trope. But there are some basic facts. Running sports programs, at nearly any level, is expensive. And despite the vast amounts of money floating around in top-level college sports, only a very small handful of Division I teams actually make money on these programs. In part this is because sports are more expensive than you might think, especially if you're trying to live up to today's standards of professionalism. And in part it's a hidden cost of another Federal regulation (see above) driven by another otherwise-laudable agenda (see above): Title IX. Nobody wants us to repeal gender equity in college sports. But that equity comes with a price tag. And very few universities can get away with cutting back on their sports programs, lest the alienate alumni and donors - even though the money those folks give often doesn't entirely cover the cost of running the programs in the first place.

The broad numbers - how much is spent on "faculty" and "central administration" - are easy to get, and easy to project simple stories onto. What we need is a much more complex analysis that traces the roots of cost increases all the way back to their source. We may find, as Walt Kelly told us many years ago, that we have already met the enemy - and that he is us.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps this fits under one of your categories, but I see the continuing march for "excellence," "eminence," and other code words for playing the rankings game as a huge culprit in upward spiraling costs. Since many of these superlatives are reputation based the star system has grown bigger and costlier. Yes, your average associate professor in the social sciences or humanities is not getting rich, but their relative value is plundered by the Big Shot pulling down 250k who has a reduced teaching load and a platoon of grad students.