Monday, January 30, 2012

Why college is expensive

Cartoon: John Fewings
Nothing I’d heard about the spiraling cost of higher education (127% from 1980 to 2000) made sense until a friend, whose daughter is in journalism school, told me she was studying statistics at American colleges and universities and found an enormous increase in administrative jobs with salaries much higher than those of faculty, whose numbers are declining—including the small, private liberal arts college where I used to teach (administrative salaries over $100,000, faculty salaries considerably less). Then today, when I was catching up on old New Yorkers—print version, in the bathtub, the biggest downside of digital readers being that they’re not yet waterproof—I found this letter to the editor (December 19 & 26, 2011):

James Surowiecki, in his commentary on student-loan debt, does not identify an important source of growth in college costs (The Financial Page, November 21st). Coincident with only a modest increase in enrollment in the past decade is the meteoric rise of a professional university administrative class. One study found that between 1993 and 2007, while enrollment at universities increased by fifteen per cent, the number of administrators per hundred students grew by thirty-nine per cent. This vast layer of university administrators has changed the composition and culture of the American university. Increasingly, they are private-sector outsiders who are more willing to undermine the missions of research and teaching in order to preserve the bottom line. A notably egregious case is the recent shuttering of the theatre department and several language programs at cash-strapped SUNY Albany under the leadership of its president, George Philip, a former investment-fund manager. Bubble or no, universities are building an expensive management structure around an academic core that’s becoming more and more hollow. Any effort to reduce college costs must restore leaner administrations, representative of the faculty and staff who carry out the institutions mission.

Ryan Walker
Lexington, Ky.

Walker’s source is no doubt the Aol News/HuffPost article, by Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute, which provided this graphic:


This article about Obama’s plan to control college debt states that student debt now exceeds credit card debt. Very little I’ve read, however, mentions administrative “bloat” as a contributing factor. Student debt reduces the opportunities for entrepreneurship and hobbles the economy, while the narrowing of college choices makes for stunted cultural, scientific and intellectual growth. How this can be controlled, I have no idea, but it’s time we got on it.  

9 comments:

Franklin said...

mantWhat you've described is just the beginning of the awfulness. For a few years people have been predicting an education bubble that could turn out even worse than the housing bubble. n+1 and Wikipedia article with a good bibliography.

This suggests that this problem is going to take care of itself, at a time not of our choosing, in a financial bloodbath that's going to wreak havoc on the rest of the economy. Alternately, we could instigate a contraction now, at the time of our choosing and with less havoc, with one simple alteration: change the law to make it possible to bankrupt your way out of student loan insolvency. That's just a start towards reassigning some of the risk of student loans back to the banks.

It pains me to say this, because I think that anyone who wants a college education should have one, but the hard fact is that these administrative tiers have bloated in size and resource consumption because of federally guaranteed student loans. The surfeit of loaned cash doesn't go to teacher salaries because the competition for teaching positions outside of STEM fields drives salaries down. If banks were on the hook for student loan defaults, they would be choosy about who they loaned to. We would return to a time before a college degree became a standard rite of passage for a young adult, when, for the most part, only unusually bright and talented kids went to college. That's sad, but we should learn from what happened to the decades-long effort to make everyone a homeowner.

LXV said...

My dad, who taught at Boston College from 1949 to 1986 and chaired his dept for several years, started complaining about this in the '60s. From him, I gained substantial disrespect for "higher" education, and so I did not get one. a few years ago, I tried teaching at Pratt for a year and my disrespect was reinforced. I do not wish to single out Pratt, because the problem is epidemic, but my experience leads me to conclude that education in this country has become an industry, much as has medicine.

Franklin said...

Sorry, the first paragraph got severely munged. It should read:

What you've described is just the beginning of the awfulness. For a few years people have been predicting an education bubble that could turn out even worse than the housing bubble. n+1 and The Chronicle of Higher Education have covered it. For more, there's a Wikipedia article with a good bibliography.

Carol Diehl said...

No problem! I appreciate all comments, munged or not. My concern is that by focusing on student loans (although I do agree they should be mitigated in some way) we are still allowing--almost rewarding--institutions for their administrative bulge. In a way, they're almost like members of the legislature who can set their own salaries, because in my experience, boards of directors just go along with whatever the administration wants.

CAP said...

As far as art education goes, I'm not convinced higher degrees are necessary in any case.

I completely agree with LXV!

Unfortunately the art market or art world has also been captured by this faith in masters and doctorates and no doubt some vigorous 'lobbying' to ensure leading colleges retain visibility in exhibitions and collections.

We worship qualifications now irrespective of the accomplishments or research that ought to accompany them. This is why so much art now seems hollow or souless (see preceding post...) As in 19th century academic or salon art, artists are striving firstly for conformity, for just so much empty formality and disingenuous allusion. They think that's enough. But plainly, it's not. And what's missing, just as plainly, is something that cannot be taught - that is, an assimilation of received skills and knowledge with real life experience and a broader personality!

Can you imagine Pollock or de Kooning ever affording (much less lasting through) an MFA program? Do you think Rothko or Warhol had to wait until they'd read the appropriate essays, before working? I don't think so.

I know the point here is the perversion of college education into a business model sinking under its own bloated management, but there's also a supply and demand to this. If prospective art students stop seeing post graduate degrees as such a necessary step to their 'careers' (or even just thinking about being an artist as a 'career' - vocation or calling might be closer) colleges might rethink what is is they're offering, and how much they can charge for it.

AP said...

Thanks for this post Carol!! There is a book that has been getting rave reviews called "The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters" by Benjamin Ginsberg (Hardcover - Aug 12, 2011) I'm looking forward to reading it -- I too, have felt this for many years in my own job -- it might also be interesting to look at what happened recently at RISD, pretty much a full revolt of the faculty against administration driven curricular changes.

Also -- I found Howard Singerman's "Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University" to be a really compelling accounting of the history of the MFA in the USA. He chronicles the advent of upper education for the arts and how it has risen and fallen with the economy -- and has influenced the character of visual art in the 20th C. (Mostly providing shelter and financing for artists working with performance and non-comercially viable forms. Actually an argument here LXV, for school as a place to explore outside of the market --- albeit the school ultimately its own kind of marketplace. )

One more thing -- I really believe that art education can be an amazing experience, I credit so many of my teachers for substantiating and nurturing my engagement with my work -- and of course countless artists feel this way. In my experience, students for whom school isn't working tend to quit.

In the collected essays -- "Art School: (Propositions for the 21st Century)" by Steven Henry Madoff --- Robet Storr says something in his chapter to the effect -- (I don't have my copy here or I could check this...) 'Art school isn't for real artists -- as genius cannot be taught -- but most artists are not geniuses at all -- and it is those who can learn a thing or two.....'

LXV said...

Thank you AP for your cogent remarks. I often wished i had been able to afford the "school as a place to explore outside of the market" but my dire finances precluded such a path. Now that I have achieved a sort of seniority, merely by having survived so many years in human society, I no longer yearn for such. My art is my consolation and my satisfaction and I support it as one would a handicapped child, that is to say, unconditionally. I read the Steven Henry Madoff book when it came out and was provoked to write a review, for it was a serious and ambitious undertaking—I did wonder about the emphasis on food services however, as if eating were the germ of creative activity—and worthy of criticism. But the ideas presented were so pathetically hermetic and bore no resemblance to my own experience as an artist (or eve really, a human being) that I set the project aside. I think there are generational issues at work here. the world belongs to the young. Let them have it.

LXV said...

That RISD debacle was a huge mess. I think Hope Alswang went off to florida.

Irene_J said...

The answer is actually pretty simple. College is expensive because of the Federal government's intervention in the market. The increase in the cost of college can be very closely related to the increases in government subsidies. The theory behind that is pretty simple to those who understand economics but is probably lost on most of the Leftists on this site. Towing Georgetown TX