This is the first of the 2010-2011 academic year’s series, Excellence Without Money(a term coined by the b!tchez at Roxie’s World in their series on the high cost of not funding higher education.) For the full archives at both blogs, click away on those links, darlings.
I’ve been doing a little thinking about the effects of the arguments we’re seeing everywhere about the high cost of higher education. Complaints about the cost of college, and the rate at which it’s increased in the past two decades, are always a major part of the argument in the slew of books published recently urging major reform of American universities. Strangely enough, none of these books suggest that the federal and state governments should once again subsidize higher education at the rate it did during the Cold War, nor do they advocate ripping out computer labs and IT departments, which are the two biggest reasons college costs more than it used to. (From 1986-90, my “laptop computer” was a $2.99 multi-subject notebook that I bought at the beginning of each semester. If you started college before the mid-1990s, I’m betting that that was your “laptop,” too.)
Instead, their arguments boil down once again to attacks on the faculty–especially tenured radicals who absurdly expect to be paid a living wage for their years of education, work, and expertise. Oddly, all of these books have chosen to ignore how universities have slashed the costs of faculty labor by turning tenure-track and tenured jobs into positions held by adjuncts, who are paid as little as $3,000 per course and are at-will employees. Distressingly, because of some recent resignations and regular faculty on leave, my department is this year an adjunct-majority department. (But because it’s been years since regular faculty produced more student credit hours than our adjuncts, so perhaps this is less of a milestone than I suggested in the previous sentence. For several years, it’s my understaning that two popular lecturers in my department produced fully half of the entire department’s FTEs.)
The problem with these articles–aside from their one-sided arguments that somehow faculty are the big piggies at the trough, not the NFL and NBA farm clubs (a.k.a. the “football teams” and the “men’s basketball teams”), not CEO-level multimillion-dollar salaries for university presidents and football and basketball coaches, and not the luxury condominiums that now pass for stadiums and dormatories–is that they’re written by upper-middle class journalists and writers who all attended and sent–or aspire to send–their children to the top 5 or 10 percent of the most selective, and usually private, colleges and universities. Now, if the only universities you’d consider sending your children to cost $30,000-$55,000 a year, your world is very different from the world the vast majority of Americans inhabit. But these are the people who are driving this “debate” in the op-ed pages of the New York Times and your local newspaper.
Take look at Baa Ram U.’s fee schedule for the 2010-11 school year, where tuition and fees are still less than $7,000 a year. At an average courseload of 10 3-credit classes per year, that’s less than $700 a class. How strange that the low cost of higher education in universities like mine doesn’t drive the debate! How odd that the fact that faculty haven’t had a raise since 2008 (although our parking permits and health insurance haven’t taken the same deflationary holiday, natch), and haven’t been able to hire since 2007-08, isn’t a part of the conversation! Tuition here is extremely low–artificially and shockingly low even compared to our “peer institutions” like Michigan State or Arizona State. But even there, you can get the same number of undergraduate credits for $11,204 and $8,132, respectively.
$7,000 a year seems to me to be an extremely reasonable price for an education that, if undertaken with at least a modest level of seriousness of purpose, will probably be a ticket to the middle class. Of course–these numbers don’t include the cost of living (either on- or off-campus), but presumably individuals would have that to pay regardless of their enrollment status. But if the only message people hear is how ridiculous the price of college is these days, by people who have been and are eager to write $30,000-$55,000 checks for their children, no matter how painful it is and no matter how much they b!tch about it, it’s not going to hurt or change the cost of doing business for those top 5 to 10 percent of the nation’s most selective colleges and universities. Instead, otherwise sensible and responsible Americans become convinced that they’re being taxed too much, and in states like mine, they refuse to pay the real cost for what it takes to maintain decent state universities.
All I can conclude is that the people writing these “high cost of higher ed” articles is that they 1) never looked at a state university themselves, nor did they ever consider sending their children to one, and 2) in spite of attending the nation’s top schools, they managed to avoid any courses in economics, where they might have learned about the concepts of supply and demand, or a seller’s market. Some universities have very expensive tuition, room and board charges, yes–because they can. There are enough upper middle-class and wealthy parents who are desperate to have these institutions cash their checks. And the bonus is that they get to brag to people about how ridiculously expensive it is to send their children to college, some of them in the pages of America’s top newspapers.