Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Why Does College Cost So Much? Beating the Same Dead Horses

Frankly, I almost hate to write this. I've written plenty of pieces before about the rising cost of higher education and the increase in administration within universities. There are too many to link them all here; try this one for starters, it points back to several of the others.

So why rehash this subject again? Because Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado, somehow managed to get an op-ed published in the New York Times - in the Sunday Review section, no less - that beats this dead horse one more time with a bizarre series of not-quite-comparable almost-statistics that sound vaguely like an argument. You can find lots of writing picking his article apart piece by piece, from his misuse of analogies to his simple misstatement of facts. I'll assume that ground has been crossed already and so won't go over it again here.

Unfortunately, the visibility of Campos' piece has given new life to an argument that ought to have been disposed of a long time ago - that the rising tuition cost of college if really a function of evil, greedy, grasping, ever-multiplying administrators. Perhaps Mr. Campos pictures us sitting around in our office twirling our mustaches and petting white fluffy cats. But because he got his nonsense published in the NYT, we have to go over this again.

Are there more "administrators" on campuses? Yes, absolutely - although the first challenge you confront when you try to verify that is defining the line is between "administrator" and "staff". A lot of the "administrators" that Mr. Campos points to as the source of the problem are people who do things. Many of these things, as I have pointed out many times before, were things that universities were not expected to do two generations ago (he seems fond of comparisons to 1960) but are today.

In many if not most instances, universities did not choose these things for themselves - both society and government have thrust a great many mandates onto universities and colleges in that intervening 55 years. Faculty can't both be faculty and also do all of these other things (Title IX compliance; online education authorizations; demonstrating a bewildering array of accreditation standards; outcomes assessment; workforce development; student success for a vastly more diverse student body; etc, etc, etc). One of the few things to get bipartisan agreement among some members of Congress recently is the assertion that regulation of higher education has gone a bit too far in many areas. On this point, Republicans have been standing on solid ground for years: regulation has costs. Mr. Campos apparently doesn't want to talk about that.

There's also a gratuitous reference in Mr. Campos' piece to "seven-figure salaries for high-ranking university administrators". I will freely concede the point that such salaries are ethically and economically indefensible. But to suggest, as he apparently wants to do, that these have any measurable impact on the cost of tuition is absurd. The vast majority of universities (my current employer included) have nobody earning anywhere near that amount. Schools with those salaries are mostly restricted to the handful of top-tier research & NCAA Div I/BCS institutions, and even at those places only a small handful of people are making a million dollars or more. Slashing their salaries in half would make only the tiniest dent in those institutions' budgets. I don't think football and basketball coaches should get $3 million a year either, but pointing to that as the cause of the tuition problem simply makes Mr. Campos look like he can't do math.

The reality, as always, is more complicated and would require a more complex conversation to really deal with. Mr. Campos' assertions aside, we DO invest less as a society in higher education than we used to. For a while (in particular, in the 1960s and 1970s) spending did rise as the number of students going to college rose as well. The cuts (measurable on a per-student basis, something Mr. Campos doesn't want to engage with) have come about in the last 20 or so years. It is also true during that time that tuition has gone up for a variety of reasons - some having to do with more student aid being available (a phenomenon which doesn't surprise economists, price inflation is a natural consequence of flooding a system with more money), some having to do with the increased cost of doing business for universities and the rising societal and governmental demands on those institutions, some having to do with cost-shifting based on a reimagining of higher education as a private good as opposed to a public good.

All of these things matter, and all of them have a hand in creating a problem that is in fact very real. As a parent of a college student who looked at both private and public university options, I agree that the affordability of tuition has gone wildly out of control just between my generation and my daughter's. I wonder sometimes how some of these smaller, less well-known private institutions manage to stay in business (the announced closing of Sweet Briar came as little surprise on that front). Even public institutions are less affordable than they once were.

So I agree with Mr. Campos on one point: we have a real college affordability problem. At a time when having a college degree is increasingly becoming THE path to a middle-class life, it is becoming harder and harder even for middle-class kids to get one. We should think seriously about this as a society, and together come up with changes that will help move us closer to the kind of country we want. But flogging dead horses and pinning everything on overly-simplistic, monocausal theories doesn't get us anywhere - even when you do it in the New York Times.

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