Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Cost of Higher Education Is Hidden In Corners You Don't Expect

I’ve written before about some of the forces driving the growth in higher education administration. While it’s easy for some faculty to assume nefarious motives, the fact is that a lot of the growth of administration – which also contributes to the growth in tuition cost – is the result of factors beyond universities’ control.

I ran into another one of these factors yesterday, in an area we don't usually think about as a major driver of college costs. We have been working in our office with a graduate student who is just finishing up his Master’s degree. He specializes in Student Affairs in Higher Education. I’ve known for some months that he was on the job market; I had even written a letter of support for him. I had a chance to catch up with him and learn about the job he’s landed at a small private college not too far down the road. He’s a bright guy and a hard worker; I’m sure he’ll do well.

Because his primary area of specialty is Student Activities, our conversation turned to comparisons in that area. I pointed out that 20 years ago at my alma mater, there were no “student activities staff”. Students organized (or semi-organized) their own activities, by and large. If you wanted to form a group and get funding from the college, the process was fairly easy and straightforward – fill out a form or two, slap together a budget, pitch your case to the student government that controlled the purse strings (not much staff involvement there, either), and off you go.

I participated in several organizations and activities in college, for the most part run entirely by students. I don’t even know if the staff were aware of what we were doing. Case in point: at some point around my sophomore year, somebody started a tradition (calling it an “organization” would be stretching the term) called “Nearly Naked Nighttime Frisbee” or Triple-N F. Basically, a group varying in size between 5 and 20 would go out nearly every Wednesday night at midnight and toss a Frisbee around, wearing as little as possible, regardless of the weather. It was goofy, and fun, and probably slightly risky (especially at -10 degrees, which it sometimes was), but that’s what college was for.

I learned from my departing graduate student that today’s landscape has fundamentally shifted. Most colleges and universities are deathly afraid of lawsuits and bad press, and so they don’t want to have any activities that aren’t sanctioned and supervised by the institution. There’s also been a resurgence in recent years of the old in loco parentis notion, egged on by sometimes-overprotective parents whose demands for “accountability” from their children’s college borders on micromanagement.

If all activities have to be sanctioned and vetted and supervised, that takes staff. And paperwork. And more staff to handle the paperwork. As both economists and physicists remind us, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. So there has been an explosion of student activities staff. Even my own alma mater now has a Vice President for Campus Life, an Office of Student Life with a Director, and an Assistant Director of Student Involvement – and I think they’re hiring another student activities person. That’s 3-4 people, where 20 years ago there were either none or maybe one.

Why do colleges hire all of these folks? The fear of lawsuits and bad press may be somewhat overstated, but it’s rooted in reality. And the pressure from parents is real. It certainly isn’t because students are any more devious, sneaky, or dumb than they were 20 years ago. I don’t think there’s been an explosion of student talent for getting into trouble that would justify an arms race in student life staff.

We hear lots of people, especially parents and politicians, complain about the cost of higher education. What we need is a clearer set of ideas about where those costs come from. In the last decade or two, the demands on colleges and universities have gone up exponentially. When those demands are made by the people who pay the bills (parents and governments), we can hardly be surprised that the costs rise on a similar curve.

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