Polenta Soup and the Terrible Awful No-Good Cost of Higher Education

While I don’t think there’s much I could say that could satisfy a recent commenter hereabouts, the question of the cost of higher education is an old theme at this blog, and longtime readers know that I worry about it a great deal. So let’s sort out some of the fundamentals once again, using a piece by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus in the current Atlantic Monthly as a jumping-off point.

1) Does all higher education cost what highly selective private institutions cost? No, as Hacker and Dreifus point out. So for one let’s keep in mind what’s much more affordable, what used to be much more affordable, and what’s expensive. Much more affordable: most community colleges, some public four-year universities, and some small private colleges. Someone seeking higher education who values only what an institution costs should attend these institutions. Hacker and Dreifus make this point prominently. If you object on a primal level to the current cost of highly selective colleges and universities, you have plenty of alternatives. If you feel you or your children must go to more expensive institutions, then you need to think about why you feel that. It implies that you think they do something better than the affordable alternatives, so figure out what it is. (Hacker and Dreifus think it’s all puffery and that the low-cost alternatives are exactly identical to their higher-priced equivalents. Inevitably, that means that the only explanation they have for why they aren’t preferred is conspiratorial Jedi mind tricks of various kinds.)

2) It’s worth asking why applicants (and their families) often do not have strong price selectivity. Or perhaps to put it more precisely, they do, but it’s not towards institutions which are at the lower price-point within their marketplace, it’s the opposite. This is an important contributor to high costs. Universities and colleges have increased tuition because they can, because people are willing to pay. This either means that higher education is now considered absolutely necessary (like health care) or it means that higher education is a Veblen good, that people actually see price as an informational signal of quality and that they are voluntarily willing pay higher and higher premiums for an improved quality of service, thus driving a constant process of upgrading and improvement. If it means that higher education is considered as necessary as life-saving health care (it doesn’t matter what a doctor tells me heart surgery is going to cost if it means I’ll die if I don’t and have a good quality of life for a considerable time if I do: I’ll pay it), then the question is why? It didn’t used to be that way. If it is that absolutely necessary, that has to involve a socioeconomic transformation far bigger than higher education itself, and not under the control of institutions of higher learning. At which point, if the cost is the problem, the solution involves something besides colleges and universities themselves.

3) Let’s say instead that the steady increase in the cost of highly selective higher education has mostly been driven by internal factors. If so, what drove the price up in the first place?

3a) Financial aid.

Many students attend expensive institutions at a discount, sometimes a considerable one. This has a big cost to the bottom line, and the cost is growing as a proportion of operating budgets at most highly selective institutions. The highest prices are charged in substantial part so that families of lesser means can afford to send their children to the same institution. You might wonder if just cutting the price in half with no discounts wouldn’t make it affordable for all (I know I have!) I think the answer is that this would make elite institutions far more affordable or burdensome for the upper middle-class (say, families with incomes between $100,000 and $250,000) but it would probably make it impossible for families at the lower end of the income distribution. That’s a discussion that’s worth revisiting, maybe, but this isn’t just some kind of greedy calculation on the part of universities.

3b) Waste.

As with almost any institution, everybody’s favorite target of clearly identifiable “waste” or “discretionary expenditure” is so miniscule a part of most budgets that you might spend more money trying to identify targets for cost-cutting than you would save when you finally found them. A serious reduction in the cost of selective, quality higher education will take eliminating or drastically reducing one or more areas of fixed costs.

3c) Externally driven costs.

Big areas of budgetary growth in the last two decades that are driven from outside include energy, health care and information infrastructure (libraries and IT). The first two have been issues for most employers. There are ways to cut those costs through best practices, and I suspect most universities have at least made a good start. The only way to make big rapid cuts are to simply stop doing some things that consume energy (reduce or eliminate heating, eliminate air conditioning, don’t have laboratories, etc.), to drastically reduce or eliminate health care to employees, or to lay off a lot of employees. The latter is something that employers have done in other sectors of the economy, and have already done in much higher education as well. Contract faculty and many staff at a number of universities and colleges receive poor to non-existent health care benefits, and are frequently let go any time belt-tightening is required. Libraries and IT are perhaps a more particular cost center in higher education. You can reduce libraries to a bare minimum or require students and faculty to pay most of their own IT costs. This seems to me to run pretty squarely counter to the point of higher education, so if you want to go that way, it might be faster to just eliminate higher education overall.

3d) Faculty salaries.

Some folks seem to have a hard time understanding this point, but if you take higher education on average, faculty are already paid much less than most professionals while still being required to possess extensive credentialing that has a substantial opportunity cost to obtain. Tenure is already absent in much of higher education. Much of the work of teaching is done by adjunct or contract faculty. Whatever the cost of the salaries of tenured senior faculty, the bottom line is that they’re not a terribly important contributor to the overall cost of higher education. Where they are, as in selective private institutions that focus heavily on the quality and breadth of teaching, you could achieve some substantial savings by reducing salaries and benefits to a significant degree. In some fields of study, you would very quickly hit a point (many colleges and universities may already be right at that point) where you could no longer hire quality faculty, because they would have employment options outside of higher education. Economics, biology, chemistry, engineering leap immediately to mind. You could probably staff a college full of amazing humanists for half the financial cost, though you’d pay other kinds of prices for doing that.

Tenure itself costs little, by the way. Or more precisely, it costs nothing compared to the idea that you’d just keep extending the contracts of strong teachers and researchers until retirement. The cost of tenure is institutional and programmatic, not financial: it keeps a university from responding rapidly to changing trends in knowledge. Arguably, this is a good thing independent of its costs. Some believe that an important responsibility of academia is the conservation of intellectual traditions as opposed to chasing momentary trends. Tenure is only a financial cost if you want to follow the growing norm in white-collar labor of firing people when they’re in their fifties even if they’re still doing great work simply to save on their salaries. Maybe that is what some people want, to have everyone in the same miserable situation except for the billionaires. I’d rather see if the whole society can’t go in the opposite direction and increase job security for most people.

The other big potential savings would be to just gut out a huge range of subjects taught in the contemporary academy. This is a popular option among those most disgruntled not just by the cost but among those who basically hate professors, intellectuals or anything approximating either. All I can say is if that’s the way you feel, you also have plenty of options. There are universities with nary a Women’s Studies professor in sight. Name your curricular phobia and you can find somewhere that will scratch that itch. So go ahead and scratch it and stop complaining about cost, because in this case costs aren’t what’s really bugging you. You’re just being a culture warrior hoping someone will pull the wooden horse inside the walls.

3e) Administrative salaries.

Faculty love to point to administration as the cost-growth villain. (I’ll probably write soon about Benjamin Ginsberg’s new book The Fall of the Faculty, which is a classic example of this genre of critique.) It’s true that growth in administrative salaries and positions outpaced faculty growth by a considerable margin at most institutions over the last twenty years. But in many cases that growth is a reflection of new missions that faculty, students, parents and government have demanded from higher education.

This ties into Hacker and Dreifus’ argument that what has driven up the cost of elite higher education is a huge expansion of facilities and services and the administrative staff necessary to run them. They mention “vegetable polenta and butternut soup” at Bowdoin as an example, which strikes me as a bit odd since that’s actually a pretty cheap-sounding soup to make. (I think this is typical of the way they fashion this argument, actually, via little sound bites about bicoastal elitism and obtuse descriptions of things like ‘no-loan’ programs that I think wouldn’t be out of place at a Tea Party rally.) But the overall point is a reasonable one to consider. The problem is, what’s driven the expansion of facilities and services? Largely it’s the customers themselves.

I’ve written before about what a no-frills non-residential college with an ambitious and innovative curricular design might look like. It would certainly have a much lower price tag. But you wouldn’t be able to have a college of that kind in many places in this country. You can’t enroll 500 18-21 year old students at a no-frills in a rural community with no rental stock and no other facilities or retail. This isn’t about creature comforts: you would have to build at least the minimal infrastructure to support those students as residents at that location.

If a college or university were in an appropriate location, a no-frills approach means that students would have to find their own athletic facilities, their own transportation, their own food, their own health care (physical and mental), their own extracurricular activities, their own information technology and broadband provider. The college wouldn’t be responsible at all for diversity issues or indeed for any relationships between students outside of the classroom. It really couldn’t afford to take an interest in the learning disability or individual circumstances of its students, and probably couldn’t afford financial aid, which is a complicated administrative burden. Addressing the career placement or other post-graduate situation of alumni would have to be very carefully circumscribed. A no-frills approach requires a rather old-fashioned idea of the classroom as a completely bounded and finite space, with no learning or activity that spills over into wider communities or connections. Enrolling students would certainly have to sign a waiver a zillion miles long: one thing the no-frills college couldn’t do without is a big legal staff.

Every subtraction of staff and facilities hits at some group of students, parents, alumni, publics or professors who demanded something of higher education beyond instruction, or who recognized that a teaching-intensive mission required an approach to instruction that went well beyond getting up in front of 300 students, lecturing at them and leaving the room. So subtractions in the name of cost-cutting are going to have to be accepted by those constituencies, which means they’ll have to value cost-cutting more than they value those services as a part of the overall package of higher education. I’d be curious to see what would happen at Swarthmore if an administrator seriously proposed lopping $10k off the tuition price in return for having no mental health services, no tutoring or academic support staff, no staff devoted to diversity or multiculturalism, no athletic facilities and no student activities funding. I think almost all of the students and their families, no matter how much they might object to the price tag, would regard those all as necessary to the institution.


Which in the end makes this conversation an interesting mirror of the larger conversation about debt, cost and services in American society as a whole. Drastically reducing taxation, and subsequently government expenditure, sounds great to many people until it comes time to cut either entitlements or a range of expected services. You’re not serious about cutting budgets and costs on a major scale as long as you’re giving out Golden Fleece awards or bitching about butternut and polenta soup. Or for that matter even just lopping 10k off of the salaries of senior faculty. You’re only serious when you start specifying major areas of activity that you believe an institution (university or government) ought not to be engaged in. It’s nice to think that Hacker and Dreifus believe that there’s no difference at all in the classes at Glenville State College in West Virginia and Amherst College, though that’s roughly like me saying that I don’t see any difference in aesthetic quality between Kung Fu Hustle and Citizen Kane: it’s an opinion I honestly believe in but it’s also a pretty classic de gustibus non est disputandum sort of claim. On a lot of areas that can be compared outside of what Hacker and Dreifus thought during a guided tour, there are some pretty substantial differences. (Not the least the cost of living in the two communities.) Anybody serious about costs has to get real: what do think should not be done? Not having faculty, not having tenure, paying faculty far less regardless of the location of a university or college, shifting all operations online, are not serious answers beyond a certain point. You’ll also have to decide what other expected and demanded services to not have. And whether shit on a shingle really saves a lot of money over polenta soup.

There are also things that are hard to compare easily. It’s not straightforwardly that Amherst has more subjects or a wider curriculum: Glenville State has areas of study that Amherst doesn’t have. But those differences are telling in terms of a deeper set of differences: Glenville’s curriculum is substantially more directed towards applied and vocational subjects. This is a huge and very different discussion (one that I’ve convened here a great deal), one about both intellectual adaptability in a changing world and about the sources and character of cultural capital. The first consideration is one that selective higher education is usually happy to discuss, the second is a bit more fraught and difficult. But these are questions that also have to come into the room if we’re asking why people value some education as highly as they do.

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22 Responses to Polenta Soup and the Terrible Awful No-Good Cost of Higher Education

  1. Mike Russell says:

    Great article!

    Honest question: could a university legally eliminate student services anyway? I was under the – barely informed – impression that some of the learning support areas were required under ADA.

  2. IANAL (I am not a lawyer) but I don’t know if there’s been a really solidly upheld court finding in that direction. But this is a point I made in passing in the essay, that at least some of the increased cost of higher education has to do with costs imposed on universities and colleges by governmental mandate. There is a pretty significant range of administrative work that is mandatory for that reason, much of which did not exist in 1960.

  3. jfruh says:

    One possible reason that people might be willing to sign on for higher tuition is that a lot of it is backloaded in the form of student loans. When I went to Cornell 15 years ago, the Ivy League did “need-blind admission,” which meant that, if you got in, the school took a bunch of information about your family’s assets and income, plugged it into some inscrutable formula, announced what they felt you could afford, and made up the difference with various forms of financial aid. I had no beef with the number they spat out — at the time, room and board amounted to roughly $24K, and we ended up paying about $10K, which felt about right (i.e. a sacrifice but not a crushing one). But the financial aid was divvied up between outright grants, loans, and work-study in a way that was again fairly inscrutable. And at the age of 18, I would have signed anything for the chance to go this college I was so excited about; I was only aware that I was agreeing to loans very, very peripherally. I emerged more or less unscathed — $20K in loans, not terrible, and now paid off without too much pain — but I’m sure it would be possible to come out with much more, and I’m guessing that the gap between parental ability to pay and the nominal tuition amount is being filled more and more by loans as it gets bigger (though maybe I’m too cynical?).

  4. jfruh says:

    (Er, that should be “tuition and room and board” above, not just “room and board.”)

    Also, on the note of “vegetable polenta and butternut soup,” yes obviously there’s a lot of elite-baiting in this sentence, but still: such a meal might be cheaper than it’s non-elite-palate-pleasing equivalent of equivalent quality, but I’m guessing there’s no way you can get vegetable polenta and butternut soup in industrial-sized barrels from Aramark. You can get those industrial-sized barrels full of ground beef and chicken broth though.

  5. So I think this gets at what I’m hinting at in the end: that if not Jedi mind tricks, there’s something about how we tell ourselves about who we are that is caught up in all of this, all the way from, “I’m going to be a great poet” to “I want to be with those people”. I don’t think that what professors choose to teach in different kinds of institutions is merely a function of social hierarchy. I think there is a material and philosophical difference between the curriculum of Glenville State and Amherst. But caught up in the net of talking about that difference are also very deep and complex dreams about who we think we are, and who we think others are in turn. If Hacker and Dreifus were willing to be more reflective, more contemplative, more inward, I think they might be onto something very powerful and troubling. Why do we think studying African history with me is something different than studying business at Glenville? Maybe it’s not, or not inevitably different, at any rate. And yet Hacker is no less interested in selling himself in terms of the narratives of liberal education: his website sells him as the professor who makes a difference in the lives of students. We all believe in the transformative and inspirational power of education, of the right teacher. The gut-wrenching question is whether money can buy a higher probability that we’ll find it.

  6. G. Weaire says:

    Americans going to college are not always engaged in an exercise in which they seek to maximize their lifetime earnings – but I’m not sure that the transformative power of education is always what they’re looking for either. I think that’s our preferred myth, not theirs. In general, I think faculty probably overrate their influence on students, who are after all fully socialized adults by the time that they meet us.

    Sometimes it’s about belonging. Talk about college is usually cast in the language of relationships, not the market. Look at how many students say they “fell in love” with the campus during a visit. People define themselves by what school they went to for their entire lives. The assumption sometimes appears to be that there’s a “right school” (like the “right person”) for everyone.

    The above, granted, probably is true mainly for (some of) those students for whom going to college itself is automatic, so that all their attention focuses on the question of which school to go to.

  7. On point 3d, and in thinking about the commenter at the other post: I think the only way we end the pervasive myth that faculty members are all rolling in dough (or my personal pet peeve, spending sabbaticals in Tuscany) all at the price of skyrocketing tuition rates is for people to start trafficking in real numbers. This myth comes from many corners, not all as angry as that commenter. I, for one, have noticed that close friends who aren’t academics are shocked when they hear how much I’ll be making as a visiting instructor at a top-10 university, and are even more shocked when they hear what a typical (or even a good) starting salary for a tenure-track assistant professor at a state school might be. It’s as you point out: there’s an expectation that the years of training and professionalization translate into a salary and it’s shared both by those who feel faculty should be paid well and those who think higher ed is a racket.

  8. Rich W says:

    This is 99% off topic, and I’m not trying to toot my own disciplinary horn here, but your statement about the supply and demand of biologists (in reference to their salaries as faculty) is incorrect. One very clear picture disputing this can be found here:

    http://www.cs.columbia.edu/~CS4HS/talks/CSvsCP.ppt [see slide #5]

    That slide shows that projected job openings for biologists (26.8K from 2006-2016) is far outstripped by the supply of biologists (85.1K bachelor’s, 12.3K masters, 7.4K PhD). Engineering and Physical Sciences exhibit a much smaller oversupply. However, Mathematics and Computer Science produce less students total (2.3K PhD, 22.4K masters, 65.4 bachelors) than projected job openings (156.8K).

    There’s no doubt that there is growth in the healthcare industry, but this seems to be largely driven by growth in the healthcare service industry (http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2009/11/art5full.pdf) and not the kinds of jobs that biology PhDs are seeking.

    Both of these sources may completely misrepresent what is going on at the PhD level. If someone has data showing that, I’d be very interested in seeing it.

    I didn’t mention economics in this discussion, but from what I’ve seen, read and heard, market forces here do justify higher salaries paid for faculty in the discipline.

  9. yie says:

    @thefrogprincess I’m glad to see you’re leading the way “trafficking in real numbers” rather than vague anecdotes.


    You’re probably not being paid very well. And that sucks, really. But at the same time, I think you’re sabotaging your position by calling for aggregate quantifiable data and then providing one anecdote devoid of numbers. Do you have sources you’d recommend? (the occasional survey on the chronicle always garners umpteen bazillion comments about invalidity due to methodology and my eyes glaze over).


  10. that’s a fair enough point, yie. I have no problem saying how much I make, but I’m not sure this post is the best place to do that. But also, I think these figures need to be highly contextualized. My number sounds worse given the school it’s coming from, which is information I’m not willing to reveal in this forum.

    I also don’t have any sources to recommend. I too glaze over those broad overviews. While there’s value to those surveys, what I think is more informative is individuals stating how much they’re paid, what rank they are, how long they’ve been at the institution, and what department they’re in. The problem with those overviews is that they’re almost inevitably skewed by business and engineering faculty, and by the senior hires in a humanities department, numbers that don’t reflect what somebody promoted within might make.

    My point though was less that this needs to happen on this blog or this specific post, but that in general, these conversations that we academics have could do with significantly more specificity.

    I don’t have the time to find it right now, but Tenured Radical did a post over a year ago in which faculty members announced how much they made.

  11. fromLondon says:

    So I attended a certain small liberal arts college and then grad school at a major public university and now I teach as a post-doc at an elite institution in the UK, which is both private and public in the strange way that universities operate here. And I have two more specific, interrelated concerns:

    1) not the cost itself, but the rapid increases in cost. I attended this SLAC less than a decade ago, and the sticker price has increased nearly 50%. I don’t really understand what has changed about this place to justify that increase in cost. Some factors are obvious: the credit crisis nosedive that might lead endowments to shrink and thus more costs (including fin. aid) that must be borne from elsewhere, and then the rising costs of health care over nine years — but then the student body is a young, healthy one that shouldn’t be too expensive, no? I do love the place and I’d probably be fine with a comprehensive explanation for why this 50% increase, but I have not seen one yet. Some explanations, like upgrading science centers or increasing financial aid, would be easier to handle than others, like building new dorms to increase the size of the student body, spending so much more on recreational athletic equipment, etc. I just think increases of close to $15k do need to be explained in a school that doesn’t seem all that different from when I attended.

    2) the demise of the public university. In California last year and in London this year, I see the same student protests of rapid increases in tuition largely due to the withdrawal of state funding for higher education. Some things about those protests were annoying to me — students coming from $200,000 a year households who were getting a massive state subsidy for in-state education they could afford, who were shouting ‘education should be free!’ — but the public universities used to bridge the gap between the affordability of Glenville State and the academic quality of Amherst: places in which students who were sufficiently motivated could sit in 15 person junior seminars with some fantastic professors and have access to current research. Many of these students were transfers from community colleges, and some were the first in their family to even go to college. When the top public universities are starting to price themselves out of affordability for those without resources, you lose a major bridge between the liberal arts splendour of elite colleges and affordable higher education affordable, increasingly (and fraudulently) provided by for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix.

    I completely agree that there needs to be a lot more introspection about what a college education means, but I do think that there are some questions and issues that serve to structure that debate without completely falling into the Tea Party through-the-looking-glass Galt’s Gulch world.

  12. DCA says:

    Just three words: Baumol’s cost disease.

    OK, a few more: we really have no idea how to make (or if we can make) research and teaching more productive, in the basic sense that what used to take time X now takes much less. You want a cheaper college? Figure out how to give someone the same amount of learning in one year instead of four.

    Or, as a folk wisdom at NASA has it: Faster! Better! Cheaper! — pick any two (except in education we don’t know how to do the faster part).

  13. Britta says:

    I have a few comments.

    First, the Ivies and other top schools are often pointed to when people mention sky high tuition, but is anyone really complaining about Harvard’s tuition? I might be biased, but I attended Swarthmore as an honestly middle class kid (i.e. not MC as a euphemism for “not independently wealthy”) and without significant financial aid, I would not have been able to, even if the cost of Swarthmore had been cut in half. My experience at Swarthmore, my private R1 grad school, and from speaking to others is that those who can get into elite institutions will generally be taken care of. It’s also true that a significant number of students at these schools are not even UMC but UC, and anywhere from 40-80K or more would be a drop in the bucket for their families, and these parents wouldn’t blink over paying twice as much as current tuition. I don’t know the exact stats, but I expect many Swarthmore students come from families earning high six or even seven figures a year (certainly that was true of many of my friends, to the extent family background/income were discussed). Would it be justified for Swarthmore to price out the middle class and below so that millionaires (or even the UMC) could get a break? Plus, offering no tuition breaks automatically decreases regional diversity. Salaries tend to correspond to cost of living, and, relatively, 20K would be much less to a family on the eastern seabord/CA than it would to anyone from the south, midwest, or Pacific NW. Tip top schools–Harvard, Swarthmore, could afford to 1) charge as much as they want (easily twice what they do now) and still get families with deep pockets looking for Veblen-type goods, and 2) then subsidize the cost for anyone to whom its a hardship, and to a great degree this is already being done. Of course, poorer but still elite schools (inc. some of the Ivies) can get squeezed keeping up with the Joneses, as they feel they must offer great financial aid packages but not have the resources of Harvard.

    The problem thus does seem lie, as fromLondon pointed out, in the state school system being priced out of range of really the middle and lower middle classes, and tier two private colleges who feel pressure to offer the amenities of tier one but simply can’t afford to subsidize it for their students, and don’t generally attract national wealthy elites. My mother attended UC Berkeley in the early 70s as the first generation to go to college, and my grandfather could afford to send all three of his daughters to college (2 at the same time) on his modest salary with very little hardship and minimal help from his children (my mother worked a few odd jobs in her college career, but nothing big). Berkeley was the place any decent student from my mother’s immigrant Oakland neighborhood ended up. I had a friend go there 10 years ago having to pay $25,000/year for out of state tuition with little financial aid offer, and now I believe that’s about in-state tuition.

    Also, in terms of professor salaries, many highly paid professors in the sciences and businesses are expected to bring their salaries with them in the form of grants, which pay the cost of running labs, hiring grad students, and even paying the professor. It’s hard to begrudge a molecular chemistry prof from making 3x what an English prof makes if that chem prof is paying at least part of his own salary (and that of his 5 grad students) with his 2 million NSF grant. Also, it means that, at least at R1 schools, cutting the hard sciences often doesn’t save money. On the harder side of my soft social science, it’s expected professors will fund all their work and grad student costs associated with that through grants.

    Finally, it seems at least like the continental European/Australian university system resembles the no-frills university, where students generally pick a school based on proximity to home and live with parents through university. I think something like universal healthcare and a stronger welfare state in general makes this a more viable system, as it takes some of the burden on supporting student-age adults off parents and the school, in part because:

    I believe that healthcare should not be discounted as a significant and rising cost. My elite, fairly wealthy R1 university has just announced they can no longer afford to stay with our insurance carrier and are toying with a move to self insurance. With a reasonably large student body and a top med school this is possible, but I imagine a small liberal arts school would have no choice but to suck up premiums that can triple from year to year. It seems like as with many things, a national single payer health system would help alleviate problems that at first glance seem totally unrelated.

  14. Nord says:

    Swarthmore of 1968 vs Swarthmore of 2008 – a couple hundred more students (25%) 3 new academic departments, more faculty, but the real cost driver I saw was non-faculty staffing – went from roughly 250 to +700. which market drove that?

    Tim, the real question is why let “the market” drive fundamental decisions about what the college looks like? Does Swarthmore really need to pay over $1 million a year to find a quality president? 4x in real dollars to what administrators made a generation ago? Once a school says no to that, it is easier to start saying “no” to more and more things down the line. Soup isn’t a good example, i agree, but every college has white elephants, many not paid by private donors that wouldn’t be done if people were spending their own money …

  15. This is a great discussion and I’m really grateful for it.

    Couple of thoughts in reverse order.

    1. “Seceding” from the market, whether for staff or faculty. It’s an interesting idea. If you offered the basic benefits of being a tenured faculty member, would there be excellent people available in every field no matter what? I think maybe, or at least most–but you would have to shift what was meant by excellence, I suspect. “Excellence” would have to be much less about standard practices of research productivity and scholarly prominence. For staff? In some areas, I think there’s just a basic market price that you can’t get around. You want qualified instructional technologists who can actually maintain the infrastructure as well as have good ideas about IT in an academic environment? That has a pretty fixed price. You want people who are specifically qualified to work with students who have learning disabilities or mental health issues? I don’t think you can get around the need for specific experience and technical training. For a president? Sure, I bet you could find a person who would do a terrific job for half or a quarter of the salary that’s the “going standard”. But it would be really hard to, because that person would have some unique desire to work for your institution and some unique or unusual qualifications, experience and outlook. I think the probabilities of finding someone completely unsuited to the job would go way up in that scenario. I also don’t think that drawing a line in the sand at the top salary position necessarily translates into saying ‘no’ comprehensively unless the lack of compression at the top salary rank is so dramatic that cutting the top five to ten administrative salaries in half translates into 20-30 faculty lines or a major cut in the tuition. There *are* universities and for-profit ed companies where that may be the case. But cutting the salary of a president of a place like Swarthmore in half would only let you lop off about $400 from the tuition or hire a few faculty. The smaller the place, the more that you have to cut some serious meat off the bones somewhere if you want to lower the cost of attending: it’s just not going to happen through the ‘victimless crime’ of cutting the salaries of top administrators. The difference between 1968 and now has a lot to do with those external costs (take a look at the cost of library materials and digital infrastructure, health and energy: all very much above inflation) and the fact that a non-profit educational institution can’t as easily pass on or evade those costs compared to a big corporation except through tuition.

    I can’t stress enough how important the pricing of public education is, which many of you brought up. That’s where the battleground really is, and where people who are upset about the costs have to direct their first attention. I used the analogy in the earlier thread of selective privates being a Mercedes-Benz, and as Britta says, if you’re in the market for a Benz, generally you don’t want to shave a thousand or two off the sticker if that means getting a crappier engine, cheaper interiors and higher maintenance costs due to part failures. But in a car-dependent society, if the sticker on all cars is quickly converging on the luxury pricing, you’ve got a big problem.

    One thing I wouldn’t mind seeing is breaking out some of the bundled costs in most residential colleges and universities and making at least some of them a la carte. I think you can make an argument that everybody needs to pay for the cost of financial aid, for example, because it’s central to the mission of the institution. But if the costs of board were unbundled a bit more clearly, it might let students and their families price-compare with private alternatives in local markets. Maybe it turns out that the campus athletic facilities are a pretty good deal compared to local health clubs, maybe not. This is pretty hard though in places where those market comparisons don’t readily exist, on the other hand. Swarthmore, for example, has very little privately owned rental stock that can be compared to our dormitories, so it doesn’t matter that much if students come to the conclusion that our dorms aren’t very good in price-to-quality in comparison to what might be available close to campus, because there isn’t much else to be had–and the basic premise of most SLACs requires proximity, you don’t really want students to be living 45 minutes away.

  16. Britta says:

    I’m thinking more about the tuition cost/progressive tuition, and why on the one hand, cheap public universities square with me more than cheaper private universities with no financial aid, and I think is because decent quality free or low cost higher education is generally paid through high progressive taxes. Thus, while millionaires get to attend “for free,” (or some low amount) they’re really subsidizing the system through a high tax rate, which is not the case with private universities. Elite private colleges subsidize the true costs of college for everyone (I remember reading somewhere as a student that Swarthmore spent $75,000 per student per year), subsidize the cost even more for poorer students and hope that wealthy alums feel compelled to donate to in part defray the cost. This is more a charity model of society than a welfare state model. (I’m in general more in favor of a welfare state than a charity model because it’s undemocratic and I believe that the welfare of most people should not depend on the caprice of a few wealthy people unaccountable to the masses, but if there is a philanthropy model in place, than I’m in favor of giving generously. Providing neither public services nor charity seems like the worst of both worlds.)

    I think, as fromLondon’s comment illustrates, once the social contract of the welfare states starts unraveling, as it has rather dramatically in the UK, and the government starts cutting taxes and services, then a free education model becomes unattractive, as it seems millionaires then get a free education while giving comparatively very little in return.

  17. Aragon AK says:

    My response to the questions posed in 2) – namely, whether inflated college tuition prices stem from the necessity of higher level education or from a supposed increase in quality – is that both are correct. From childhood we are taught that college is important, that without it we cannot amount to anything other than a hamburger flipper at some fast food chain, and (being a current high school senior myself) I can say that these days, the same lessons are seriously stressed by school counselors. Of course, while it is true that most college graduates obtain higher paying careers than high school graduates, this is not always the case, especially in today’s “get rich quick” society. And because college is so pushed, parents and students assume it is necessary for a successful future and struggle to pay the hefty tuition bill. Because they are deemed necessary, colleges in turn raise the price of their tuition, knowing that millions will still pay. Indeed, “the higher the cost, the better the product” is a common human fallacy, one that many colleges take full advantage of.

  18. G. Weaire says:

    I agree with the general tone of how regrettable it is that the flagship public universities have become so pricey. However, there are reasons why they have developed in this direction. If anyone thinks that the faculty are rolling in cash and there are no hard choices being made, talk to people who teach at these institutions.

    Financially, the publics are much closer to being private institutions than they were in the halcyon postwar decades. Just like his counterparts at private institutions, the job of a president of a public university is dominated by well-dressed panhandling.

    It’s extremely unlikely that politicians will vote to fund these institutions at the level required to impact this. There would also be costs – more generous government funding would probably bring tighter government control. The golden age of the American public university coincided with (among other things) the zenith of cultural authority for experts like professors. A state legislature nowadays would be much less likely to allow a combination of high funding and academic independence.

    Which, again, doesn’t mean that this isn’t a regrettable state of affairs. Among the things to be regretted, is the decline in the numbers of institutions that admit many, and wash out many – which will only be tolerated if you don’t charge a lot. (You’d also be killed in the rankings, but that’s a separate problem.)

    Tim Burke has expressed his frustration with the culture among elite parents who feel that if they don’t micromanage every aspect of their child’s life from preschool on, the child’s life chances will be destroyed. But it reflects a sane worry that early deficiencies can hobble a person for years afterwards.

    We could use more institutions that said “You believe that your life up to now hasn’t shown your real potential? We’ll give you a chance to prove yourself under tough conditions, and see if that’s true.” I imagine that I’ve not the only person who’s met older Americans, who were by any definition highly successful, whose story involved a good public university offering them that chance.

  19. Yes, though I’d also note that back when that was more common, washing-out wasn’t a death sentence. More than a few gentlemanly Cs and lower just found that they weren’t ready to be serious or engaged at 18, which I think is pretty understandable, and *were* ready at 25 or 30 or when opportunity unmistakeably knocked. Now it’s a lot harder to point to places where there is the organizational and economic slack that will permit that kind of later chance to develop. So the stakes for getting in are higher and the consequences for bombing out are higher.

    On costs and belt-tightening, something of a side note. I hung around one of our science labs for a while this summer and one of the major things I discovered as a pleasant, fascinating surprise was the degree to which our faculty are very careful about managing laboratory resources and supplies, and do a lot of inventive economizing and recycling. I’m guessing that’s common except maybe in labs at big research universities that have a ton of outside money being thrown at them for some reason or another.

  20. Doug says:

    What’s the multiple between the highest-paid administrator and the lowest-paid teaching faculty? (Or indeed between the administrator and the lowest-paid employee period.) Is it conscionable, especially considering Swarthmore’s Quaker heritage?

  21. DavidC says:

    It’s maybe interesting to think about how the internet could help with certain kinds of organizing at your “no-frills” university. You’d get student activities, community involvement, etc. etc. all organized around the college, but not by the college.

  22. Westin says:

    One of the problems with funding any type of public school – whether it be K-12, community college or a university – is there are often mandates from the state or federal levels that are either unfunded or barely funded. That would make creating a no-frills school difficult, even if a private school attempted to do that. You’re right that this discussion reflects the larger budget talks happening all over the country; we’re going to have to deal with less services to really make any serious cuts.

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