Friday, August 31, 2012

The College Cost Debate: Stuck in a Rut

The cost of higher education in America has become a national issue - not on par with the debate over jobs or health care, but far more visible than at any time in the past few decades. When there's more discussion about higher education than national defense, you know you've made it to the A list of national policy issues.

Unfortunately, the debate has gotten mired in bifurcated, partisan politics. I'm not referring here to the divide between Democrats and Republicans - neither party has said much that's either coherent or detailed about higher education. The closest that debate has come to coherence was President Obama's sweeping (but largely detail-free) call for broader access to higher education, followed by a Republican charge that he was being "elitist". Don't expect real leadership from either party on this issue.

No, the battle over college costs is being waged inside higher education, between its two most powerful tribes: faculty and administrators. At a time when union representation is fading in industry, both sides seem determined to reinvent campuses along the lines of the battles between the UAW and the Big 3 - Labor and Management, forever at odds, always battling. We're turning back the clock to the 1970s.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the debate over the cost of college, in which each side blames the other. Recently, a commentary article in the Chronicle suggested that part of the problem with college costs was faculty profligacy, which needs to be curtailed. On the other side is this piece blaming administration for the whole mess. It is no surprise that the former article was written by an administrator, the latter by a faculty member.

I wrote on the former piece a few posts ago, suggesting that the administrative position was a little rosy about what faculty politics and faculty governance is likely to accomplish (or not). Today I want to take on the faculty perspective - particularly this nugget from the good professor's commentary:
Reason and data alike suggest that the largest part of the problem is that it is administrators and members of governing boards who have too much influence over how resources are used.
He goes on to argue that, although the "pursuit of self-interest by both faculty and administrators is at work here", "tenure-track faculty members' influence on campus priorities has declined steadily, while the number of nonacademic professional staff has proliferated." He cites statistics about the growth of administrative positions, implying (without evidence) that this growth is entirely a function of the "self-interest" of greedy or self-aggrandizing administrators. He concludes with this: "shared governance is the only natural constraint on the pursuit of self-interest."

The fact that administrative positions have expanded is unarguable. But as I've pointed out before (here,here, and here), there are a multitude of reasons for this expansion, some of which are outside the control of anybody at the university. So the simple "expansion is evidence of greed" model just doesn't hold water - this is a complex system, and attempts to treat it as a white hats/black hats story is both silly and counterproductive.

Then there is the assumption in the good professor's conclusion - that the solution lies in giving power back to the faculty. But faculty, too, have their own self-interests. I've been in that position, and I know well what faculty value - smaller classes, more opportunities to teach new things, more colleagues to broaden both one's own horizons and the opportunities of our students. There's nothing inherently wrong with these things - they are all good for students, which is frequently the justification used. They also tend to reduce the workload of the faculty, which is very much in their self-interest. And - a key point - they add to the cost of the institution.

Turn the budget over entirely to faculty, therefore, and I've no doubt that the number of administrative positions would go down. But if the number of faculty goes up and class size goes down, will this drive down costs? Probably not.

We've reached the point where the "point the finger at the other guy" nature of the debate is effectively blocking out real conversation on the issue. Many faculty do not trust administrators (sometimes with good reason), and many administrators don't value faculty input. In that environment - just as in the American auto industry in the 1970s - it's almost impossible to have a real conversation about how to boost quality and productivity and keep costs in check. That's a complex conversation that needs to be conducted by grown-ups, not tribalists with axes to grind. I hope we can get to that point, before we too start needing government bailouts.

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