Another week, another "Why does college cost so damn much?" article, this time in the NYT. The author discounts the argument that states have slashed funding for higher education by emphasizing that adjusted for inflation, state support is much more extravagant today than prior to 1980. Instead, as I have suggested in the past, he blames:

the constant expansion of university administration. According to the Department of Education data, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which Bloomberg reported was 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions.

Even more strikingly, an analysis by a professor at California Polytechnic University, Pomona, found that, while the total number of full-time faculty members in the C.S.U. system grew from 11,614 to 12,019 between 1975 and 2008, the total number of administrators grew from 3,800 to 12,183 — a 221 percent increase.

This argument is irrefutable. The number of administrators in higher education today dwarfs any previous era. Moreover, their penchant for paying themselves lavish salaries is a big part of the problem. What does it tell you that among mid-career academics it is often tempting to make a push to go into administration? It's not that anyone thinks it's a good idea to quit being useful as a teacher to become another soul-crushing bureaucrat, but when you realize that the people who do the least work make 250% of your salary it has some appeal.

That's not the whole story, though, and everyone in higher education is terrified to talk about the rest. Some of the administrative bloat is pointless. The rest of it is a result of two legitimate problems. One is that competition for students is intense (at private schools, "desperate" doesn't go far enough to convey the enrollment situation these days) and colleges increasingly look to compete by turning the experience into a playground. Not only do they need to spend billions collectively on creature comforts – elaborate Rec Centers, luxury student housing and food, etc – but they have to hire countless paper pushers to administer the programs intended to keep students entertained. A gym is more than throwing up a building and filling it with treadmills. There have to be group fitness classes, semester long programs in whatever is trendy, a calendar full of events, and anything else you'd find on a cruise ship or resort.

The second part is the one people only whisper about. More and more students are going to college over the past two decades, partly driven by the availability of loans and the inability to enter most fields without a degree. The end result is that moreso than any time in the past, today there are huge numbers of students flocking to college who have zero ability to succeed there. Universities of course want to retain these students, and in order to do so they have to create a massive bureaucracy of support services. Any skill tangentially related to completing college level work now has a lavishly staffed support center devoted to it on campus. A writing center, a study skills program, tutoring services, a math helpdesk, a massive bureaucracy devoted to the shockingly large share of students diagnosed with various disabilities, and anything else you can imagine.

If you want to stay open, you have to admit a certain number of students. In an ideal world you accept only students who can succeed given the nature of the school. In reality you end up taking a lot who probably can't. And if you accept students who do not know how to write sentences in English, you better have someone ready to hold their hand if you expect them to last longer than a semester. That costs money – a lot of money.

When you add up the cost of huge salaries for presidents, provosts, deans, and deanlets, recreational facilities that resemble theme parks, athletic programs (a competitive D-I football program costs a small fortune), shiny new buildings, and an army of functionaries tasked with guiding students who sometimes lack even high school level academic skills through college coursework, it makes sense why costs are exploding. Those of you who went to college in the ancient past can attest to how austere the accommodations were, how barebones the support services were, and how little "fun" universities paid to provide.

There definitely are too many administrators and they have a terrible habit of paying themselves too much. But some of the growth has been of necessity, as more and more students need more and more help to have any hope of succeeding at this academic level. That isn't cheap. College costs a lot more than it used to. But "used to" didn't include paying half a million bucks to bring Katy Perry to campus and having to teach high school graduates how to do math involving fractions.


  • Inasmuch as I teach some of those remedial classes to some of those unprepared–or in some cases, unfit students, I can attest to this practice. I feel at times like a mid-leveler in a pyramid scheme–one that's been with the organization long enough to know that it's a sham, but who's invested so much time and money (and who's finally on the paying end of things) that he's ill-inclined to pull aside the curtain.

    The fact is, American culture depicts college education as a can't-miss path to gratifying and remunerative employment–and that as something that not only should be available to everyone, but should be pursued by everyone.

    It's not. It is much more a ticket to a lottery–you cannot win without out, yet the purchase alone will not get you the prize. As America's employers figure out more and more ways to ship labor–including management and those areas of development usually requiring a B.A. or its equivalent–overseas (or turn them into 'unpaid internships' that basically amount to a revolving door of slave labor, minus the room and board)–the market for "College Jobs" is thinner and thinner by the year.

    Yet the people–starving for the decent blue-collar jobs that no longer exist–have been sold the lie of "Hey, don't worry about that unionized factory gig–sure, it's gone for good, but you, yes YOU can go to college and get a degree and THEN, guess what, you'll get a WHITE collar job, you lucky so-and-so."

    No one has sold this narrative harder than universities, because of COURSE they have.

    And so there I stand, term after term, in front of a fresh crop of no-way-in-hell-are-you-going-to-make-it-four-years-here students, who think that this is the way to get to where they're going. Only…they can't spell. They can't parse a sentence. They've never read anything, and don't recall anything of history, science, geography or math from high school. They know enough to lead their lives–and that's it.

    I tell myself that what I'm teaching them–how to think logically, and how to communicate their thoughts effectively–is a valuable skill in EVERY version of life they'll lead. And I believe that. I believe that most of them leave my class a little smarter than when they went it.

    But that's not what they're there for. They're there for The Job they think is waiting for them. It isn't. But so long as we can tell them that, when they eventually give up and bail a couple years in, their failure is THEIR failure–and as long as we can tell those who replace them that THEY will succeed where their predecessors failed, this cycle will continue.

    One of the administrative positions that's cropped up a LOT in the past few years? Debt recovery officers–people who chase down students who dropped out and still owe for the time they wasted here. That's just a dark, dark fact.

  • Here's some advice for any parents with young kids out there. Tell the American higher education system to fuck off. Sane countries such as Germany, Austria, Finland, Sweden, etc. admit foreign students and their programs are either much lower than the cost of American colleges or in some cases, free. Some programs are in English, others are in the local language. Just start doing the research now.

    Get your young kid learning German, for example. Even if they end up studying in an English program or another country, it will be useful to them along with at least one other foreign language. Think you can't support them overseas? No problem. For between $1000-1400(depending on how fancy a certificate you want), you can get them a TEFL certificate, enabling them to work as an English teacher while they study and live abroad.

    Here are the benefits:

    -You will be effectively saying fuck you to the scam that is the American higher education system.

    -The experience your child gets living abroad will be far more educational than the bullshit they're likely to learn in an American university.

    -Even when you're not making much money in most of these countries, you'll still have it better than someone in the US trying to pay off their student loans working in a low-paying service job. As an English teacher they may not have to pay rent, or they will at least get paid vacation. In 2007-2008, my monthly salary was between $900 and $1000, much lower during part of that time when I was off contract. Still managed to take an 11-day vacation to TWO countries during that time.

    -As a corollary to the above, your kid will become more independent, much faster. Moreover, they will make connections with important people and meet all sorts of opportunities they never would have expected.

    These are just a few of the benefits you and your child could garner from stepping off the beaten path to debt and dead-end jobs. Remember our "natural betters" in the US say that the market must decide everything. So vote with your wallet. Send your kid to study for much less abroad, and give them the certificate they need to support themselves while they're there.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    In the sciences, there has also been an explosion–certainly at least in part warranted–of regulatory compliance requirements for doing research: animal care and use, chemical safety, environmental safety, radiation safety, grants accounting and compliance, effort accounting, etc. These requirements cannot be satisfied without entire offices filled with bureaucratic functionaries and higher level administrators to supervise them.

  • In my less cynical moments, I look at the racket that higher education has become, and I think how stupid and counterproductive it's become. In my more cynical moments I look at it and see a beautiful, exquisitely designed industry that creates exactly the citizens that 21st century capitalism desires: consumers utterly incapable of leading a self-reliant life without expensive and ongoing support-industries, comfortably contained within self-serving bureaucratic hierarchies with all their little rewards and punishments – and the icing on the cake – a high tolerance for the inevitability of debt peonage.

  • Don't forget the outrageous sports coach salaries! My state U pays $2 Mill/year to the boys' basketball coach and $900,000/year to the girls' basketball coach (source: local tv news a few weeks back when my state's team still had a shot). That's just basketball. I'm sure the fooooootbaw coach earns more than that. So, how many $50,000 – $80,000/year professors could be employed for the $5 or $6 Mill being wasted on sports? How many scholarships for the academically-prepared and academically-inclined students? How many #$%#$%#$% dorms could be built to house the students so they don't have to spend months playing "housing roulette" and trying to find backup housing that doesn't require you to sign paperwork and put down deposits in March for the following year…and then lose it if you actually get on-campus housing?!?

  • As a longtime educator at a college that is home to many unprepared students, I can certainly agree that a substantial part of the administrative bloat is related to such students. However, I would make two points:

    1. The fact that these students are trying to go to college is generally a positive thing, and their lack of preparation is, to a great extent, a function of poverty. It's an outrage that educational institutions are forced to pay to deal with the systemic national problem of wealth inequality. However, I also don't believe it's acceptable to suggest that these kids just don't belong in school. They have been neglected and under-served their whole lives, and as a result, some of them, perhaps many, may be too far behind to ever finish college. However, at some point society must make an effort for these kids. I wish it happened more broadly and sooner, but I'm glad my little corner of society is at least doing something.

    2. Much of the administration devoted to helping struggling students succeed is absurd, but many of the examples you give (writing centers, math tutoring) are both extremely helpful and quite inexpensive. So lets get rid of that layer of administration devoted to developing new forms for faculty to fill out and new speakers to come and tell faculty how to teach, but let's keep the minimum wage tutors.

  • The sad fact is that many jobs which should require no college degree are requiring them for no explicable reason. You see this all the time: Requirements- "four year degree." No specification as to the field. It could have absolutely nothing to do with the field, but no matter how much real world experience you have actually doing that job, it's a non-negotiable requirement.

  • And Australia's current leadership—though I have feeling Labor would enact the same policies too—is stacked with ideological zealots who want a US style university system. Ignore the fact that the current Treasurer was seen manning the barricades when they introduced HECS—a user friendly form of student loan with none of the nasties.

  • In my opinion Arslan is entirely correct about jobs which should not require a college degree having a degree requirement.

    I'll admit to a bit of nostalgia for the past when, here in Nebraska, any graduate of an accredited Nebraska High School could be admitted to the University of Nebraska. Freshman English was set up as a two semester wash out period to eliminate one third (more or less) of the students that didn't have the study skills to do the rest of the college level work. Not that these young people were destined for failure. Many "white collar" jobs as well as decent "blue collar" jobs were still there for them. Now, not so much.

    Now, you must go into debt to get the equivalent of the High School diploma of my youth. And that without the prospect of a job that will enable you to pay off the debt.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    I feel sorry for those who can't cut it in college. But I also feel sorry for those who graduate.

    As a Training Manager for a division of a large telecom company in the '00's, I saw the product that our colleges turn out, first hand. *
    The company required at least a two-year degree for any job.

    These young people coming out with Associates/Bachelors Degrees were woefully unready for anything but the most basic starting position. And even then…
    And when we hired them, they quickly weeded themselves out due to attendance issues, lateness, inability to focus, and other disciplinary issues.
    In college, for many of them, their hands were held all throughout their time there.
    Businesses don't have time to mother and nurture you.

    Now look at it from the young person's point-of-view.
    They graduated!
    So, new college degree in hand, they go looking for a great paying job – that was the point of college, no?
    Only to find that, unless they had a great special skill, or had gone to a top-level college, jobs 'don't pay so good.'

    What happened?

    Hey, they had fulfilled their end of the bargain! They had gotten their degree!
    So why couldn't they find any jobs besides being entry-level CSR's making just a few bucks more than minimum wage?
    This wasn't how this game was supposed to go!
    "I went to college, dammit!"

    So, as much as professors whine about the lack of quality students, picture how business leaders feel about entry-level workers.
    And feel for the students, too!
    Racked with debt, if they can even find a job in this economy, it's a low-paying one.
    How do they buy a car?
    A home? – Hell, even rent is astronomical!
    How can they afford to get married?
    Have kids?

    And so, they go back home to their parent's house – victims of capitalism's relentless and psychopathic greed.

    *Btw- Back in the mid-late 90's, I was an Adjunct Professor for 6 years at a private college.

  • Anubis – maybe you could just add your line starting with "consumers…" as another entry to the Urban Dictionary for "technopeasant " – the current definition is weak sauce by comparison.

  • "So why couldn't they find any jobs besides being entry-level CSR's making just a few bucks more than minimum wage?
    This wasn't how this game was supposed to go!
    "I went to college, dammit!" -Gulag

    And at this point, they begin to blame illegal immigrants for their problems.

  • GunstarGreen says:

    @Arslan: The reason the generic "four year degree" requirement appears on more and more job applications these days is because having a degree — any degree, the field is entirely irrelevant — speaks to the applicant's ability to withstand staggering amounts of bullshit. The vast majority of American college degrees aren't worth the paper they're printed on in terms of describing a person's knowledge or aptitude in a given field, but they do signify that a person was able and willing to go into substantial amounts of debt, put up with a ton of academic and beaurocratic horseshit, and in general be a good little peon that did as they were instructed and seal-clapped when appropriate for four or more years. This is all that most American employers want from a prospective employee these days, actual skill be damned.

    Not that "skill" will matter in the slightest regarding anything in about a decade or so. We now live in a world where it is perfectly acceptable for College-educated adults to be functionally incapable of operating in a world where people have ideas different from their own, and must retreat to "safe spaces" that are set up as literal nurseries complete with coloring books and pillows when someone, somewhere on campus may be challenging their "deeply and dearly held beliefs".

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Ditto on that "Amen" for @GunstarGreen!

    When I was an Adjunct, I basically told my students that – but, I slightly sugar-coated it.
    I didn't want the kids to all start sobbing and screaming in frustration.

  • Yeah, we used to just throw away the sexual assault victims and people of color. The good old days.

    I agree that part of the explosion of cost is that Higher Ed is the last set of institutions which is remotely interested in holding up its end of the Social Contract. As K-12 schools slid from education to warehousing and now to outright prisons . . .

  • charluckles says:

    Also, too, the alumni game. We must spend money to attract wealthy alumni to make donations so that we have money to spend to attract wealthy alumni to make donations…

    There is an increasing amount of infrastructure, bureaucratic and otherwise devoted to playing this game.

  • Once the problem of scarcity has been solved, there is no particular need for anyone to work for a living. What is needed is a mechanism to distribute the big five: food, clothing, housing, medical care and transportation.

    There are complaints here about who gets what and how much. Well, your real complaint should be regarding how so many redundant people spend their time. All we have come up with so far is to warehouse them.

    The homeless need warehousing. The bureaucrats and baristas are just doing what they can "merit" their share of the American pie.

  • I spotted the trends toward lifestyle colleges and remediation in the 1980s, which have only worsened since. The larger picture written about by Allan Bloom took me a little longer to grok fully, which is that the rot started within the academy itself some decades earlier. All of this is reminiscent of an even wider culture of corruption and sclerotic old age, notwithstanding all the technocrap we've gotten in the last few decades. Disclaimer: the good old days is a rhetorical trap, too, since they weren't always so well enjoyed by the masses, but there were still some charms we can now only wish for.

  • anotherbozo says:

    Colleges getting topheavy with overpaid administrators, corporations paying CEOs obscene salaries: is there a pattern here? Something about the powerful showering themselves with benefits while the peons suffer? What's missing from what was present, as I recall from the America of the 50's, isn't just unionization but the widely held belief in fairness or balance or reason, or maybe all three. When those considerations, based on values invisible to hardtack economics, evaporated, what was left was might-makes-right and unmitigated greed. Those that have can get, and get more. Greed is good, even in academe, and reason can be pressed into its service as transparent rationalization. Absent is any sense of shame.
    I've lived to see two of the greatest systems of higher education crippled and all but dismantled, the University of California system that benefited me with a free degree, and the University of Wisconsin's, now under siege from college dropout Scott Walker.
    I hope only to live to see a revolt against the current plutocracy we've allowed on almost every level. It's such a brutally simple truth everyone should be able to see it eventually. Surely a major function of government should be to keep the lions from devouring the lambs.

  • Leading Edge Boomer says:

    The original article by Mr. Campos is flawed. He points out that, in the aggregate, public support for state universities has increased. He ignores the phenomenon of many more college students, as has been discussed here. So in fact, per-student public support for state universities has declined, sometimes as much as 50%.

  • In any system where the recipient of services isn't directly paying the cost (think health insurance), we get a disconnect. Colleges fall in this category, and they're able to charge what the market will bear. I work at a private college that could be accused of administrative bloat, and the number of applicants increases every year.

  • I don't usually comment, but I feel like there's some input to be made here.

    Starting at a fairly expensive ($45K-ish) private school later this year, I agree with all of this. However, it is the proposed reasoning behind the various disability/help services that I might have some contention with.

    I am, at the end of the day, a bit more clever than your average 18-year-old (holy shit, the ego in that statement is overwhelming, but I am more than aware of my youthful potential for dickery that I do not mean it in this way). I have ADD, ADHD, and some level of anxiety. I am in the 99th percentile for reading and writing (always 6-7 years ahead in vocab since age 3). I *need* help to do math and science. I want to do well, but I can't teach myself. I'm currently in a class to help me organize my shit/keep me on track (or use as a study hall/regroup time)

    TL;DR sometimes the assistance programs are genuinely used by students with capability who need some help so they don't lose their scholarship. (Fuckin' cut the athletics tho, at least shrink them)

  • Hard to get too worked up about spending resources to educate people, even if it's academic support and not traditional classroom education. Are there stats on what all these extra admins are doing? If they're extra academic support (i.e. tutors, study halls, writing centers etc.) then it seems this is a new strategy for education: fewer professors per student, but more support staff. Maybe that's a bad idea, but its not necessarily bloat/waste.

    I lot of people on here are knocking the spending on athletics. I bet out of all the stupid stuff colleges spend money on, athletics is one of the few that actually has an impact on enrollment. It may be dumb, but there ARE plenty of people who choose a school based on the football/basketball team.

  • Me reed this slow, cuz me not finish kolij–TWICE–and I am depriest.

    Me now going to barr where all servers and bartenders have AT LEAST a bachelor's degree or are currently in kolij.

    Me feel bad, fortunately me get beer chepe.

  • @Chris; if every college and university cut professional sports (a.k.a. taxpayer-supported and student-supported farm teams for billionaire team owners) then it would make not one whit of difference in enrollment. OTOH, it would cut down on mindless thugs looting and burning down the town when their team loses…or wins.

  • @Chalreschuckles My daughter works for the "development" (ie, donations) department at one of the largest public universities in the US. That department brings in WAY more money than it costs.

    IOW, it pays for itself. Many times over.

  • @Leading Edge Boomer:

    Campos certainly addresses increased enrollment. A quote: "Enrollment in undergraduate, graduate and professional programs has increased by almost 50 percent since 1995. As a consequence, while state legislative appropriations for higher education have risen much faster than inflation, total state appropriations per student are somewhat lower than they were at their peak in 1990. (Appropriations per student are much higher now than they were in the 1960s and 1970s, when tuition was a small fraction of what it is today.)"

    Reread that entire paragraph.

  • Elaine Thompson says:

    Is this not pure Parkinson's law, whatever fancy footwork you do to try and rationalize and justify this outrage. ask any serious academic.

  • Spiffy McBang says:

    "if every college and university cut professional sports (a.k.a. taxpayer-supported and student-supported farm teams for billionaire team owners) then it would make not one whit of difference in enrollment. OTOH, it would cut down on mindless thugs looting and burning down the town when their team loses…or wins."

    It's been noted that schools with teams who start winning national championships in major sports see a definite uptick in applicants. I suppose it's possible enrollment doesn't change because they reject more people, but… does that seem likely?

    That doesn't mean the kind of spending on major college athletics that occurs is warranted in a broad sense. It's not like the kids who choose Alabama because ROLL TIDE WOO would choose en masse not to enroll anywhere if college football worked on minimal budgets. But for the schools who chalk up major success, it does make a difference in student interest.

  • @Spiffy McBang

    Actually, it means just that. Colleges openly brag about their "selectivity"(how many students they turn away) in fighting for position in the rankings. More importantly, it's irrelevant how many go to College A vs. College B, there is a population of HS grads applying either way.

  • Aleax Schofil says:

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  • Wmojrim: this, exactly: " More importantly, it's irrelevant how many go to College A vs. College B, there is a population of HS grads applying either way."

  • Several years ago I read that the auto industry has 25 million cars/year capacity but that worldwide demand is 15 million cars/year. Thus it is subject to relentless product improvement/cost cutting and devil take the hindmost (Saturn, etc.).

    Colleges/universities seem to be in the same situation as the auto industry. Unlike say the travel industry (airlines, rental cars, hotels) for example, competition can't be reduced via consolidation. Each college/university must live or die on its own. I'm sure my alma mater could disappear overnight and not be missed, alas. We weren't in the Final Four. We may (or may not) have a reputation but certainly no brand.

    Years ago it was possible to flunk out of college. Is that still possible or do students just run out of money?

  • @April:

    That formulation only works if you only count direct costs of the development program (e.g. salaries, office space) and not the money spent to make the school more attractive to big donors – teams, stadiums, rec centers, etc…

  • When I interviewed for the job at the VA hospital back in 1985, a college degree was not a requirement. I was there twenty four years. When I left, how 'bout that, it was. I could not have even applied for the job that became my career.

    I was, however, quite competent at dealing with staggering amounts of bullshit.

  • The Standard Liberal Arts degree is for training colonial administrators and middle management.

    Both of these jobs have withered to a tiny fraction of their previous totals. Thus, institutions specializing in providing training for the jobs are facing issues.

  • «The reason the generic "four year degree" requirement appears on more and more job applications these days is because having a degree — any degree, the field is entirely irrelevant — speaks to the applicant's ability to withstand staggering amounts of bullshit.»

    That's part of "socializing" a lot of potential trouble, but this is more important still:

    «how so many redundant people spend their time. All we have come up with so far is to warehouse them.»

    That's the big deal. "Atlantic area" economies no longer generate enough jobs to pay every worker a good salary, a lot of people are underemployed, and many would be unemployed.

    At some point a few decades ago "Atlantic area" governments got desperate to hide this, and one of the solutions was to push as many people as they could into bullshit degrees: a four year degree takes almost 10% of a typical working career, thus reducing the labour supply by 10%, and ahs the additional benefits that it costs money, and thus generates employment for teachers and administrators, plus it is usually financed by debt, generating profits and employment for Wall Street.

    There was a particularly amusing episode of this in England: during a rather deep recession in the early 1990s the government tripled the number of admissions to postgraduate degrees from one year to the next, because financing postgraduate degrees was cost less than unemployment payments.

  • They're not doing it themselves, they're going to the Russians to do
    the same thing. In fact, a great many goal-based writings are geared
    towards improving businesses at the bottom line in terms of increased
    efficiency, increased productivity, etc. A team with 2
    losses might have lost both games right before the upcoming
    game, and be on a losing streak.

  • It isn't just the numbers. the process of teaching is moving out of the classrooms and into student services. The way administrators envision students learning has little to do with what happens between them and their teachers and everything to do with extensive support networkd, committeee meetings, and paperwork.

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