UPWARD SPIRAL

Posted in Rants on July 19th, 2011 by Ed

Arizona State University is often the butt of jokes – to this day every time I hear someone described as promiscuous I think "She's easier to get into than ASU!" – on account of its supposedly lax academic/admissions standards and bargain-basement cost. In-state tuition in the late 1980s and early 1990s was not even $2000. Between 1999 and 2010, the cost of tuition increased 300%, from just under $3000 to $8900. Tuition at the University of California-Riverside increased 29.7% in a single year from 2009 to 2010. Since 1980 the average public university tuition, adjusted for inflation, has increased almost 400%. Why is college tuition getting so much more expensive? The Chronicle of Higher Education has a neat interactive tool that you can use to find any institution if you're curious.

I question the knee-jerk response from those of us on the left, that state budget cuts are responsible for passing a greater share of the costs onto students. There is undoubtedly merit in this argument. State budget cuts are hard on universities, especially as enrollments skyrocket. But in aggregate, state allocations to universities have been rising almost as quickly as tuitions since 1980. It's not equal to the penny and that isn't the point here; instead, let's focus on the fact that everything about it is getting more expensive. The rising costs lead to one of two outcomes, and not the one most commonly used as a boogeyman:

1. Mom and Dad shell out the cash and get angrier / more reactionary about how much they have to pay. Teabagging ensues. Everyone involved feels entitlement, reinforcing the parents'/students' sense that they are paying a ton and they're paying a ton for an A and a degree.

2. Students accumulate more debt. This, not the straw man of "Poor people won't be able to afford college!", is the depressing result. Anyone who can fill out a FAFSA can find someone to offer them the loans, guaranteeing that people of all socioeconomic classes can graduate with a barely useful BA and a ball-crushing load of debt that will ensure their enduring servility in the workforce.

But I digress. Where's all this extra money going? How are both students and taxpayers pouring more money into public universities with no end in sight to get essentially the same service? It sure as hell isn't going to professor salaries. It sure as hell isn't going to teaching overall, what with the growing use of $12k/yr grad students and adjuncts. It sure as hell isn't going to research (the growth of which is relying mostly on external grants and the private sector). So, what? Let me propose two culprits we don't often hear about.

First, massive investments in infrastructure – particularly non-academic infrastructure – that aren't doing much to enhance the academic experience. Anyone who was on a college campus between, say, 1992 and 2008, knows that the sight of cranes and construction was unavoidable. Higher education went absolutely Big Shiny Building loco. Why? Growth for the future and anticipated growth in enrollment explains part of it, for sure. We needed more space. But so much of it was aimed at marketing the school to potential "customers". Students (and parents) have a tremendous amount of choice in higher education, from the local commuter 2-year school to high end private 4-years. No university wanted to give gaggles of high school seniors (with parents awkwardly in tow) the Campus Tour without being able to show them a bunch of Big Shiny Buildings. Mom and Dad aren't gonna be very impressed unless they can see "hi-tech" classrooms full of the latest gadgets. Big Shiny Buildings don't impress the kids much, though – gyms do. "Student centers" do. Student unions that look like shopping malls / amusement parks do. The big rock climbing wall and other MTV-esque crap does. None of this stuff is educational. It is strictly there to entertain students and lure in potential students. Everyone tells you they'll give you an education, so the important thing is which school offers you the most "fun". Which one has the most cool shit? Which one looks most like the campuses on TV shows?

Second, the growth in administration has been unchecked and exponential. Most public schools now have an administrative-to-educational employment ratio of 3:1 to 4:1. Or worse. Layers upon layers of extremely highly paid, dubiously useful administrators. Some of the growth has come from the addition of useful offices in recent years – for example, I'd argue for the value of the Offices of Women's Affairs that most schools have added since 1990. But good god, the average school literally has a dozen or more buildings chock full of people of no discernible utility. Everyone complains about bureaucracy; on campus it's more valid than in most settings. The Assistant Vice-Provost for External Affairs and his staff of 28 aren't working for free. The 500 deans on most campuses aren't doing any more than 100 did 30 years ago (except for fund raising; most of them spend 90% of their time on that, academic planning be damned). There is no more nuanced way to put it – universities are now top heavy with six-figure-salaried stuffed suits with no marketable skills and no apparent purpose except to make more difficult everything a university is supposed to do.

The cost of higher education, either for students or state legislatures, isn't going to go down until they stop putting politically expedient Band-Aids on their problems (furloughs, larger classes, pay/hiring freezes, more temp labor in the classroom) and decide to focus on what is supposedly their core mission: educating people. The new $100 million MultiTainment Complex and the Orrin Hatch Learning and Instructional Center are expensive frills. Athletic programs are money-losing albatrosses. Administrators exist mostly to perpetuate the need for administrators. Teaching and research should be 99% of what we do. But mention that on the Campus Tour and watch the eyes start to glaze over…

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