Why is College so Expensive? Is it Really Administrative Bloat? Yes, and at Least Some of it is Justifiable.
It’s a perennial question: why has the cost of a college degree skyrocketed in the past decades, with the price accelerating more quickly than any other common good? From 1980-2014, the average annual college tuition increased by almost 260% compared to the nearly 120% increase in consumer items.
This inquiry becomes even more pressing in light of our country’s abysmal college completion rates. Less than 50% of undergraduates complete a degree in four years. Only slightly over 50% complete a degree in their lifetimes.
If the completion rates are so low, one might reason, why then are costs escalating? Usually a higher price tag means increased quality and better outcomes.
What is to blame here? There seems to be plenty of that to go around: climbing walls, fancy dining halls, and other luxurious (and, by implication, unnecessary) amenities, exorbitant coaches’ salaries, lavish athletics facilities, student aid to increase access to higher ed, and reduced state subsidies.
But in the most searing analyses, of which there are many, the biggest culprit is, hands-down, “administrative bloat,” shorthand for the ever-escalating and unnecessary increase in the number of non-faculty positions at every college and university.
Put succinctly by Paul F. Campos, “…a major factor driving increasing costs is 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.”
And here’s another: “A report fromthe Goldwater Institute found that, “between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service grew by only 18 percent.” Notably, the study also found that, “In 2007, it took 13.1 more employees to educate the same number of students than it did in 1993.” The reality is that at American universities’ faculty make up less than half of all employees.”
This seems indeed to be a vexing state of affairs.
I can’t resist adding one more quotation – please bear with me – since it points to an even graver consequence: “Universities have added these administrators and professional employees even as they’ve substantially shifted classroom teaching duties from full-time faculty to less-expensive part-time adjunct faculty and teaching assistants, the figures show. … [t]here are now two nonacademic employees at public and two and a half at private universities and colleges for every one full-time, tenure-track member of the faculty….”
So, administrators are bloating the salary rolls and colleges are hiring part-time, much less expensive instructors to balance their ledgers.
Sure, some blame “celebrity faculty” who cost a lot; they are wooed to move from one college to another by the lure of star salaries, relatively speaking. (Real Hollywood stars haven’t actually earned that little since they waited tables.) But data show that faculty salaries have remained pretty flat overall.
And of course, some would argue that presidents should not receive millions of dollars worth of annual compensation. So, maybe we should attribute a bit of the cost escalation to this administrative cost.
But, I think there is one good reason for rising college costs that we should excavate a bit more deeply. I maintain that it raises administrative budgets and rolls justifiably. In other words, some of the “administrative bloat” is warranted and necessary.
To serve populations of students from every conceivable socio-economic, racial, ethnic, religious, educational, and national background takes well-trained, well-educated, dedicated human beings.
- You cannot provide academic advising to thousands of students from 100 countries and infinite varieties of backgrounds and aspirations without accessible, approachable, knowledgeable and caring advisers. Every student needs and deserves individual attention as they forge their unique road through college. Faculty are pulled in so many directions that they often do not have the bandwidth to learn all the pesky and mind-numbing college rules and meet with students one-on-one as frequently as they and their parents need to in order to ensure that their resources are well spent, so you need staff.
- You cannot support student tutoring and learning needs on a shoestring. Even if you use an all-student tutoring staff, you need someone to organize them, train them, supervise them, and help them when things go awry. And space and materials. And payroll for the student tutors.
- You cannot deal with the colds, flus, broken bones, mononucleosis, pink eye, and other common but temporary ailments that come with hundreds or thousands of 18- to 22-year-olds living and studying together unless you have medical professionals.
- You cannot meet the mental health needs of an entire college population without therapists, psychiatrists, and other health professionals, especially given the current mental health crisis on our nation’s campuses.
- You cannot provide disabilities accommodations to deserving students without trained, dedicated, and highly educated professionals.
- You cannot provide financial aid services and education without knowledgeable, well-trained financial aid officers who care about students and are committed to college access.
- You cannot support a diversity of student groups, which contribute immeasurably to student growth and education, without employees who guide the emerging student leaders and their cohorts, distribute funds, figure out room assignments, help with supplies, and mount events.
- You cannot support the residential communities and crisis intervention needs without people who care, are accessible, trained, knowledgeable, and invested in the issues.
- You cannot develop, implement, and run educational programs on sexual respect and consent, and the use an abuse of alcohol and other drugs without trained, committed staff.
- You cannot offer sound, innovative programs on cultivating an equitable, inclusive, and diverse educational environment without educated, creative people to develop, run, and assess them.
- You cannot provide opportunities for students to interact with faculty and graduate students outside of a formal classroom without humans to organize those programs. And money to buy the food, pay for the space, advertising, and clean-up.
These are all expensive endeavors, and they reflect the opening up of the institution, which can only be good for society at large. If we want to admit students from every conceivable background, with every imaginable aspiration to our institutions, we need to help them get to the finish line because the playing field is not level. We have an obligation to support all students well.
So, some of the administrative increases arise from the fact that colleges no longer serve one narrow slice, but rather the whole of society at large. And that is a good thing.
Colleges shouldn’t have to decide between teaching students well and supporting them well. There must be funding for both. One should not come at the expense of the other.
People who are trained and committed to helping students make the right academic choices for them and their families, staff who specialize in providing tutoring and other forms of academic support, to supporting physical and mental health, to determining and implementing the needs of disabled student needs, and to helping students finance their education and grow through extra-curricular, co-curricular, and residential education are all necessary in the twenty-first century college and university. These are all just part and parcel of a good university operation, the nature of which has changed a lot since 1980.
We have to stop being nostalgic about an era in which we supported a narrow slice of society on college campuses, come to terms with what it costs to support all students well, and stop pitting the teaching and support costs against one another.
 http://www.cbpp.org/research/state-budget-and-tax/years-of-cuts-threaten-to-put-college-out-of-reach-for-more-students and http://www.cnbc.com/2015/06/16/why-college-costs-are-so-high-and-rising.html