I’ve been writing for quite some time about the destructive rise in college tuition and how to stop it. One aspect that is underdiscussed is how the US News and World Report rankings, and the culture they help create, contribute to the rise in tuition and student loan debt.
As I’ve long argued, two of the primary drivers of college costs are the rise in administrative costs and rampant physical expansion. These might seem like unconnected phenomena, but in fact I think the speak to one dynamic: the rise of thinking about college as a kind of resort where you also happen to take classes. Administrative creep is present in any human bureaucracy, of course, but a big part of the reason that colleges hire so many administrators is because they are running so many programs. At a large school, the number of purely extracurricular activities, organizations, groups, charities, campaigns, and sundry others is frankly incredible. All of this stuff costs money to run, and nowhere more prominently than in hiring more administrators. Meanwhile, while the recession appears to have somewhat leveled off the building boom, too many colleges are still building too many new buildings or renovating buildings that don’t absolutely need it.
Now. As someone who lives on less than $18K a year, but manages to enjoy it thanks in part to the number of partially subsidized activities that are available on campus, I’m not blind to the appeal of these programs or these facilities. But we can’t afford them. We just can’t afford them. And yet colleges feel it necessary to constantly expand their mission and include more and more, and also to have the nicest, newest gyms, food courts, gyms, and facilities. Why? Because those things play a disproportionate role in getting highly sought after students to come to your college. In doing so, they contribute to the end-of-career senior exit surveys that play a large role in the US News rankings.
I have some shocking news for you: 18 year olds aren’t the worlds most rational people. I’m close with people involved at various levels of the college admissions process (small liberal arts college administrators, a big public U dean, several people in the test prep world), and a lament common to all of them is that entering freshman spend years working incredibly hard to get into top schools, agonize over which schools to apply to, and then seem to choose what college they attend based on very arbitrary or silly criteria. Colleges keep pumping money into fancier dining halls and racquetball courts because those things work in attracting students. Unfortunately, the actual educational experience seems not to matter much. (The metrics on education they do care about, such as student-faculty ratio or number of Nobel laureates, are often meaningless constructs in practice.) But then those are the wages of the neoliberal insistence that only market mechanisms are worthy: when you insist that education should just be another product to be marketed and bought, you get what teenagers think is cool rather than what is best for their education or for society.
There are many in the academy who would love to change these dynamics. The rankings themselves and the mentality they are a part of them are loathed by most professors. Indeed, the professoriate is also the group most likely to question the value and importance of the facilities and programs that help inflate the costs of college in the first place. But professors are living with the consequences of an American university system that has become captured by the administrators. It’s no surprise that administrators get what they want, particularly considering that the cost of administrator salaries have exploded while faculty salaries have stagnated. And as administrators care about rankings and artificial notions of prestige, the university continues to chase after them. It’s a recipe for rising costs.
I support the Obama administration’s effort to address this situation, although the devil will be in the details. I also believe that, despite media’s tendency towards the apocalyptic, concerted effort can achieve positive change. But state funding of public universities simply has to return if we’re going to make college affordable again. State funding declined precipitously following the financial crisis, but that was merely an acceleration of a decades-long abandonment of public education by state legislatures. (At the extremes are states like Iowa, where public funding for state universities has decline 40% just in the last decade.) And the media has to do a better job. Unfortunately, the popular media is now so universally hostile to the university and those of us who work within it (and political bloggers even more so) that they can’t understand the actual dynamics within. In David Levy’s reality-free editorial in the WaPo, he asserted that faculty salaries were driving the cost of college tuition, when in fact tenure track faculty salaries have been stagnant and more and more TT faculty are being replaced by cheap adjunct labor. Forget about fairness: that kind of distortion makes it harder to solve these problems.
And they desperately need solving. We need a broad program to address existing student loan debt (up to and including debt forgiveness), and we need to reduce the cost of tuition up front. That means that colleges have to truly dedicate to keeping costs down; it means that efforts like the Obama administration’s have to keep the heat on; and it means that public money has to be reinvested in our higher education. But it also means that our media has to call out lies like those of David Levy, and stop participating in daily professor and university-bashing.
For more, consider Sherry Linkon.